Digital Transformation in Food Safety – Learnings from IAFP 2023 - Part 1

August 07, 2023

Neogen’s “Digital Transformation of Food Safety” Panel Session

Digital automation of food safety testing and sanitation programs has arrived. In this three-part blog we will discuss the learnings from IAFP 2023, starting with a summary of the breakfast panel session hosted by Neogen Analytics in Part 1. Parts 2 and 3 will delve into the conversations and presentations that occurred at the event surrounding what was one of the hottest topics this year: Digitalization and Automation of Food Safety.

On July 18, at the 2023 IAFP conference in Toronto, Ontario, Neogen hosted a “Digital Transformation of Food Safety” breakfast panel session. The expert panel was composed of eminent food safety leaders: Liane Ford from Post Consumer Brands, Kim Simpson from McCormick & Co., and Mike Gross from Café Valley Bakery. Also joining the panel were Gary Weber from Crisis24 — a division of Garda — who lent perspective from a liability insurance and regulatory perspective, and Joe Heinzelmann, Director of Digital Solutions at Neogen, who provided a view into the future of data and technologies that are being developed to address the industry.

The panelists all self-identified as early adopters of Neogen Analytics, a leading cloud-based software platform. This technology enables the unification and automation of environmental and product testing programs, as well as digitalization of the master sanitation schedule and its associated workflows.

The session started with some context-setting data from a recent survey Neogen conducted. Survey respondents were 153 food safety professionals from a broad range of food processing and manufacturing organizations. Three of the survey questions and responses were highlighted as a means of setting some context for the state of the industry when it comes to “digital transformation.”

When asked to prioritize the biggest challenges being faced today with food safety testing programs, respondents identified “determining what to do with the data” as the top issue. Second was “reporting and interpretation,” which also lends itself to a similar need. Ultimately, nearly half of respondents (44%) identified data and its use as a key gap. Interestingly, 12% of respondents also selected “slow time to results,” revealing that there may be a connection between a lack of understanding in how to use the data collected and the ability to deliver insights from that data in a timely fashion.

In fact, two other findings from the survey revealed more on this theme.

Regarding the question of data digitization, 43% of respondents indicated that they were mostly, or in some cases entirely, working with a paper-based system for collecting, analyzing, and sharing food safety testing data. Only 5% of respondents indicated full digitization of their testing data. The panel, whose organizations have evolved to be in the aforementioned 5% over time, discussed this fact in plain terms, each describing their respective organization’s journey from paper-based to fully digitized platforms.

One of the benefits of this journey was illustrated in the third and final finding shared from the survey.

The time spent by respondents to merely prepare data for reporting needs was astounding. There were audible gasps from the panel audience, but also recognition that, indeed, 48% of respondents were spending over 2 hours each day accessing, collecting, and sorting through data, instead of analyzing the data and applying new insights to their food safety testing programs.

The panel discussed many aspects and considerations for how to approach a digital transformation, lessons learned, and detailed descriptions of the business benefits achieved along the way. Through the sharing of real-world experiences, the panelists agreed that justifying the move to digital to leadership was essential, and provided the following guidance to the audience:

  • Risk-based improvements are the most important, but also the most difficult means of justifying the cost and resources required to transform a paper- and spreadsheet-based system to a digital platform. Ideas on establishing this justification included the following:
    • Show the data. Identify where reduced time-to-information along with detail and accuracy of information enables faster and more accurate decisions that result in lowering risk. Examples involving reduction of unplanned clean-in-place and teardowns were mentioned.
    • Integrate with the labs/Laboratory Information Management System. One of the audience members commented that a seamless integration between the testing workflow and the lab and its systems can greatly reduce errors, speed communication, and identify issues before they become expensive problems.
    • Automate and manage corrective actions. The ability to automatically trigger the appropriate corrective action protocol when an issue is discovered yields a double benefit: (1) the program is consistent across all production floorplans and facilities, and (2) the steps are tracked, completed, and thorough – meaning no steps are missed – yielding better outcomes.
  • Efficiency improvements can be found in almost every facet of the journey. Scheduling and management of testing programs can be created and set to run automatically with repeating routines as well as the ability to inject investigatory schedules into the mix.
  • Operational improvements can be found through the analysis of trends, leading to new sanitation and testing procedures that can reduce delayed production starts or line-level disruptions due to lengthy delays in receiving diagnostic results and performance of corrective actions.
  • Liability insurance oversight was another topic discussed. The ability to gain digital control of testing and sanitation program data, analysis, and workflow management yields an ability to identify and remediate issues faster — something that insurance providers view as a risk-reducing result. This, in turn, can smooth the way for improving relationships and controlling insurance costs.

Finally, all panelists chimed in on the topic of “leadership commitment.” A digital transformation requires that the old way of doing things (paper and spreadsheets) be replaced by new processes and means of collecting and sharing information (see additional thoughts on “the old vs. the new way”). A discussion of this topic ensued, and all agreed that leadership commitment to the management of this change was crucial to success. The prior discussion about the means of justifying digital change was referred to again as the key to engaging leadership and gaining the necessary commitment.

Stay tuned for Parts 2 and 3 of this series on the learnings from IAFP 2023!


Category: Food Safety, Consumer Goods, Dietary Supplements, Food & Beverage, Pharmaceutical & Biotech, Microbiology, Pathogens, Environmental Monitoring