Supply Chain Complexity: The Catalyst for Food Safety Failure

Food transparency is a global supply chain problem—and one that will require proactive action from companies all over the world to solve.

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Food safety issues are quickly becoming a global crisis. Over the past few years, recalls and restaurant closures have populated the news cycle, highlighting the harsh reality no establishment is immune to crippling foodborne illnesses lurking within its supply chain. In the United States alone over the past few months:

  • Chipotle had to manage yet another norovirus outbreak that infected over 135 people in several of its quick service locations.
  • Ben & Jerry’s found traces of herbicides, in its ice cream, which caused quite an uproar and led to accusations of false advertising.
  • Mama C’s donuts, an Ohio donut shop, temporarily closed its doors after patrons were suspected of contracting norovirus from the location.

These are just a few of the small bumps in a series of food safety concerns the industry has faced in recent years. On broader scales, entire supply sources, most recently papaya, are frequently questioned due to evidence of pathogens or other contamination. These cases show food transparency is a global supply chain problem—and one that will require proactive action from companies all over the world to solve. 

Sustainability: Getting to the Source

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is challenged with pinpointing the source and cause of these outbreaks, but notoriously complex food supply chains turn this task into an unnecessarily long and drawn-out process—and one that doesn’t always address the root problem. The Center for Disease Control published a report on a 2016 salmonella outbreak that depicted the difficulty, and practical impossibility, of tracing tainted ingredients back to their source. Although ensuring traceability of products for food safety is incredibly complex, companies can address the root causes of these issues and other types of risk with a few concrete steps. The first is to not just look at the products, but to assess the ethical and social practices of suppliers. This step is what makes full traceability and transparency attainable, helps reduce risk from all sides, and is one of the only ways to truly solve food safety and sustainability issues within the supply chain. 

With foodborne illness and quality issues becoming more frequent and crippling for both consumers and brands, steps need to be taken by all companies to better understand how the supply base operates. By starting with tier 1 suppliers and taking a closer look at business practices and who suppliers are specifically doing business with—instead of focusing on what’s being produced—teams can inherently evaluate how suppliers are managing their supply chain and what needs to be done to set everyone on the right path. The approaches and mindset required to fight sustainability issues can be used to promote food safety and vice versa. 

In fact, a recent survey of supply chain and procurement leaders found that the top three drivers behind sustainable procurement were brand reputation, risk mitigation and compliance—all of which go hand-and-hand with the challenges plaguing the food service industry. Companies need to take a deeper look at what’s going on across their entire supply chain and proactively address questionable practices that could cause problems in the first place. 

Taking Action: Two Keys for Success

The biggest assets for companies looking to reduce supply chain complexity and food safety issues, and become more sustainable and transparent in the process, are visibility and collaboration. Food companies, whether directly or indirectly, work with many levels of the value chain and as such have a voice in every step of production. Teams can’t improve processes, protect against new risks and ensure they’re providing quality, safe and sustainable products if they don’t have strong oversight and visibility into the performance of tier 1, 2 and 3 suppliers. Issues inevitably arise when there’s no insight into what’s going on across the chain. Building strong supplier relationships and incentivizing the supply base to adopt sustainable practices is key for delivering safe, healthy sources of food and avoiding major outbreaks. 

By treating suppliers as an extension of the business and raising their profiles as collaborators and partners, rather than vendors, food manufacturers are better positioned to find and fix weak links in the supply chain. Working together more frequently on process improvement, proactively sharing sustainability best practices, and building joint KPIs into contracts means there are stronger and more frequent lines of defense against safety vulnerabilities. These practices should be implemented on a global scale, not just on a regional or local level, and across every aspect of the food supply chain to give companies a fighting chance of eradicating safety issues before they occur. 

When it comes to the supply chain, ignorance is not bliss. It’s incredibly important to proactively monitor and take measures to reduce risk and protect the global food supply chain, because the end-product is not just something consumers buy and use, but something that impacts health. Consumers have a right to know what’s in their food, and it is procurement’s responsibility to make sure everyone—suppliers, manufacturers, distributors and consumers—is set up for success by choosing to work with qualified, sustainable suppliers willing to proactively implement ethical, good sourcing practices into their own frameworks.