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Food companies navigate COVID-19 crisis through flexibility

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Companies serving different segments of the food supply chain faced chaotic weeks early in the COVID-19 pandemic, but regardless of those challenges, mandates for food safety and product quality did not change.

Representatives of foodservice, retail and an industry association talked about their pandemic experiences and the difficulty in responding to the crisis during a Food Safety Summit 2021 virtual panel this afternoon. Participants agreed that early communications from government and health officials were sometimes conflicting and late in coming as companies were forced to fill knowledge gaps with experts from their own industry.

“The fact is, at the beginning of the pandemic, we knew very little, to nothing, about the virus and we weren’t quite sure if the virus could be transmitted through food,” said panel moderator Jorge Hernandez, vice president of quality assurance for Wendy’s.

“. . . In addition, all of us had to separate between multiple and often contradictory messages and information that came to us from all over the place to be able to help our companies and agencies guide the communications and the actions we needed to take to ensure the safety of our employees and customers and the compliance with multiple orders that came about from the pandemic.”

Daily web conferences and constant communications with local health and government officials, as well as contact with both clients and other industry groups helped food companies navigate the early days of the pandemic.

Tom Ford, vice president of food safety and quality assurance for foodservice provider Compass Group, said the company relied on the “three Cs” for steps to take: community (local health departments), customers and Compass, for in-house policies on responding to the pandemic.

Mahipal Kunduru, vice president of quality assurance for retailer Topco Associates LLC, said most organizations have business continuity plans, but they’re geared for short-term crises.

“All of a sudden, it required the entire operation to work effectively and efficiently in a remote perspective,” Kunduru said.

Steve Mandernach, the executive director for the Association of Food and Drug Officials (AFDO), said trade associations and industry partners were critical in navigating information in the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic. A lack of outreach by public health officials to food safety experts in different industries fueled early confusion on how to follow prescribed protocols, but communication improved as the pandemic continued, he said.

New business models
Panelists agreed that the pandemic is altering the way food companies will do business, following the prolonged period of change it has forced on consumers. The scenario has shifted from finding crisis solutions to meeting new expectations, Ford said.

“I kept saying at the time that the food experience is changing; we can’t do it the same way,” he said. “Food safety rules can’t change, the food quality rules can’t change. But how we’re getting food to people had to change.”

The food industry is fast-paced and flexible, Ford said, and companies must evaluate how best to serve customers post-pandemic, including food safety solutions, delivery methods and where meals are eaten.

“The industry will forever be changed by this, and we don’t know what the end of it will look like,” Ford said. “Flexibility and being open-minded are two traits this industry will come out of this with.”

Kunduru said it’s important to have an outcomes-based approach to evaluate processes, instead of trying to use existing plans to achieve different goals.

What won’t change, he said, is that consumers expect that food will be safe and available.

“The format in which they might engage with you might look different, in terms of making the purchase or preparing the food,” Kunduru said. “. . . Peoples’ interest in wanting to experience types of foods has changed and evolved because menu options have changed quite a bit in terms of how consumers are eating at home.”

Mandernach said disruptions of on-site visits forced his organization to offer daily web training by the third week of March 2020. Within a month, he said, the association had offered 96 hours of training to state and local officials.

The Food and Drug Administration shuttered some inspections as personnel were pulled from exporting countries, but the agency continued “mission critical” inspections and introduced off-site inspections via the web. Mandernach said these remote inspections likely will continue in some situations, as well as more “non-regulatory” inspections to take advantage of technology to evaluate processes.

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