Over the past couple of years, FES has been field testing solutions in Africa and South Asia that gives medium and small food businesses the wherewithal for improving their food safety culture, and thus the quality of the products they sell. On a practical level, this means that these food businesses want to invest in new technologies and processes, which means that they will incur extra costs. We recommend the more affordable such technologies (almost a hundred!) to our clients and will be sharing these with you on this blog.
We break down these technologies to follow a typical food supply chain, among the following categories:
Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs)
Food safety measures start at the farm, the origin of food. Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) are thus the initial stages of ensuring that food is safe. Technologies to reduce defects and postharvest losses are crucial in ensuring that consumers are purchasing high quality food products and that manufacturers maximize profits. Agricultural products are the raw materials for the processing and manufacturing industries.
At its core, Good Agricultural Practices are such practices that reduce the likelihood of contamination at the farm level. Microbial, chemical or any other contamination may occur with fruits and vegetables when farmers are not strict about their GAP-recommended production practices.
In most countries where GAP is practiced, a GAP certification is not explicitly required by law. However, increasingly wholesale and retail buyers ask their farmer suppliers for GAP certification. For example, in the U.S., GAPs are incorporated into various voluntary certification programs, such as New York State’s Grown and Certified Program, that are responsive to consumer demand.
Affordable technologies that help growers around the world incorporate GAPs into their businesses is a relatively cost-effective way for supply chain actors to control risks of cross-contamination. These include simple devices for safe harvesting that do not damage produce (e.g., nut gatherers and harvesters), various types of insect controls and easy storage solutions. Encouraging suppliers to use good agricultural practices is a sure first step that food businesses can take on that journey.
Food manufacturing and food processing
Manufacturing refers to the process of converting and transforming agricultural raw materials into finished food products that meet manufacturers’ specifications and are safe to consume. Food processing is technically different from food manufacturing as it only refers to a process where a raw material is converted into an ingredient (for example, milk is converted into powdered milk, wheat is converted into flour – to be later used as ingredients into other finished products.)
Food manufacturers may use the products that they buy from food processors to convert them into a final good that will go into human consumption. However, some food processors sell their products to consumers as well. Thus, consumers would buy flour or tomato paste that they themselves will convert into finished foods.
Both food manufacturers and processors may want to (or must) adhere to good manufacturing practices (GMPs) to make food fit and safe for human consumption.
As is the case with GAPs, GMPs may or may not be legally required depending on a context. They will vary between countries, regions within countries, products involved or size of business. But all of them are designed to establish consistency in food quality, whatever the context, and have the following basic safe handing principles at their foundation:
Sanitation and hygiene
Building and equipment
Validation and qualification
Documentation and record keeping
Inspection and quality audit
Adhering to these practices, especially in the countries where FES works, may seem like an expense some businesses are not ready to incur. However, increased revenue payoffs can offset some of these expenses quickly and greatly improve food safety compliance and consumer confidence in a food business. The choice of technologies to make improvements according to the above GMP concepts can accelerate that payoff considerably. These include simple solutions for managing food processing operations efficiently, personal protection equipment, time management controls and other essential elements that allow for control of manufacturing processes, making them more uniform and the final product more consistent and safer to consume.
Packaging and Labeling
Packaging material provides an enclosure that protects food from contaminants and other hazards that may render food unsafe.
Innovators in the packaging industry have come up with different products that promote food safety, present food in visually appealing ways, and facilitate proper use. In fact, there are so many different packaging solutions that the industry is enormous: in the United States alone, food packaging industry is projected to reach USD 411 billion by 2026.
Labeling is another important element of food safety as far as technology is concerned. In most developed economies, labeling regulations are very precise and following guidelines is paramount if a company wants to sell in those markets.
The affordable technologies that we recommend for improved packaging and labeling are easy and simple to implement. They include such packaging as plastic wrapping and easy-to-use paper boxes, as well as heat guns sealers and adhesive labels for quick and easy labeling.
Transportation and Shipping
Transportation, shipping, and logistics are vital in making sure food products reach consumers at the right time. This helps farmers and food businesses stay competitive by reducing uncertainties in the supply chain. Supply chain logistics has undergone a massive transformation in ensuring that products get to the consumer at the right time, right quality, right quantity, and right price.
Controlling damage during transportation is essential, and successful businesses are on the lookout for simple solutions that are like temporary (and kinetic) storage. Best practices – and in many instances regulations that support those – require transportation vehicles to be kept clean, for food to be transported in sturdy containers that keep products free from contamination, mold and pests, and many others.
Other – more technologically savvy – practices recommend digital technologies that are still relatively easy to encounter and buy, even in developing economies. These include GPS tracking devices, radio frequency identification (RFID) tags and mobile temperature controls that can be monitored and managed with the use of a cell phone.
Of course, these technologies must be supported by other elements of food safety systems such as proper personnel training and good record keeping, especially if transportation operators are third party: trust between various supply chain actors is essential for food safety.
Selling and traceability
Traceability is the ability to use unique codes (batch or lot numbers) to trace and follow the food, feed, food-producing animal, or substance intended to be, or expected to be, incorporated into a food or feed, through all stages of production, processing, and distribution. It links all business processes from the beginning of a supply chain to the final consumer (Food Standards Agency, 2002).
As in several other industries, companies that offer modern traceability technologies have increasingly diversified product portfolios to provide more affordable options to diverse groups of customers. The use of codes (scan codes, bar codes, RFID codes and any combination of these) are becoming more available to smaller businesses globally. These technologies have improved the traceability of food products at different points of processing, storage, transportation, and point of sale to end consumers. Equally as important, software options that support these affordable technologies are also becoming more of a norm than an exception worldwide.
Food Preparation and Consumption
Finished food products are prepared for consumption after processing, packing, and transport. Implementing good food safety practices is still critical during preparation to ensure that foods are handled and cooked using methods that minimize contamination and risks of foodborne illness.
Technologies to make food safe for consumption during this phase vary greatly and reflect the immense scope of food preparation techniques – from food handling to type of cooking gear used.
For example, alternative cooking technologies such as liquified petroleum, solar drying and baking, air frying, microwave, etc. can help eliminate carcinogens linked to grilling with charcoal. This is a major issue in some of the countries where FES works (e.g., in Senegal) where charcoal grilled and smoked meats and fish are part of the everyday diet.
Other practices are more about maintaining hygiene in the kitchen. Thus, restaurant chefs using tongs and tweezers to handle food in preparation can minimize touching it with their hands – a major contamination risk. Similarly, fast food restaurants offering single use utensils will help reduce the risk of contamination coming from customers themselves.
Still other technologies we recommend have to do with storing prepared foods and ingredients if these are not served and consumed immediately. Using plastic containers, cold storage and maintaining the practice of dating food and ingredients are some of the examples.
Of course, maintaining proper personnel hygiene and storage practices, as well as clean food preparation surfaces and stations will make the use of all these technologies more sustainable. And there are such convenient and affordable technologies that can help: think soap dispensers, cleaning tools and wipes, and handwashing kits as well as many others.
Waste management and recycling
Food waste must be collected, wrapped in impervious materials, and put in bins to prevent microorganisms and rodent infestation. Processing waste is easier if it is separated at the point of source, especially if it goes into recycling. Simple techniques such as separating food waste by type and by putting it into separate bins is one such idea.
There are various types of waste management, including recycling and animal feed. Using food waste to feed animals is one of the oldest waste management concepts practiced by humans, feeding fruit rind to pigs, etc. Both this and recycling are great contributors to reducing waste that goes into landfill, which is handy in situations where formal waste disposal services are not as readily available.
Improving food safety requires a change in the organizational culture of businesses, but it does not have to break a company’s budget. There is a plethora of simple, affordable solutions that the market is happy to provide (and we are happy to offer advice on) for any budget and in any country.