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The Future in Focus

Podcast: The expanding use of technology and data in the food industry - Increased risk or better control?

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21 APRIL 2023 - 14 MINUTES

Welcome back to the Future in Focus podcast by LRQA, and if you’re new here, welcome. In this episode, presenter, Holly Plackett, is joined by LRQA’s Technical Director of Supply Chain, Kimberly Coffin, to discuss the expanding use of technology and data within the food sector.


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LRQA: The Future in Focus

Hello and welcome back to The Future in Focus podcast by LRQA or if you’re new here, thank you.

In this episode, presenter Holly Plackett is joined by LRQA’s Technical Director of Supply Chain, Kimberly Coffin to discuss the expanding use of technology and data within the food sector.

Hi Kimberly, thanks for joining us on the podcast again. We’re here today to talk about the use of technology and data specifically within the food sector. We’ve seen the use of technology and data accelerate at a great pace over the last decade. Do you think this has influenced a change in the traditional ways of working within the food sector?

In short, absolutely I think the increasing kind of connected world and the evolution of that connected world given a number of those macro trends that we’ve seen that have occurred over the last three years had a definite impact with regards to how the food sector has viewed the use of technology and data.

When I think about the food industry, they’ve probably been quite notoriously known to be kind of slow to take up tech. I think that’s probably because a lot of the people and a lot of the decision-makers with regards to the controls and processes around food safety and other significant risks to the business tend to have always been very scientific based and really, traditionally very heavily focused on compliance and ensuring compliance of products and processes, and very heavily reliant on paper-based systems.

Interestingly we ran a webinar in late January and included a poll regarding the use of technology and what companies were considering by way of investment in technology. And it was really interesting to see the results. 83% of attendees on the webinar which included 300-400 global participants were investing in technology. And of that 83%, nearly 40% of them were looking at multiple ways in which they were actually looking at different types of technology solutions. Spanning from real-time control and monitoring of the processes through to looking to suppliers of key services, so things like pest control, lab testing, and even kind of the firms that are doing the audits for them to actually be able to provide results and reporting through enabled cloud-based systems. And then finally really starting to look at the use of technology to better manage supplier qualification, approval, maintenance, and collaboration processes.

Great, thanks, Kimberly. So, we know that advancing the use of technology and data is positive for businesses, but surely there are risks too. Can we talk about some of the critical risks associated with an increased reliance on technology and data?

Absolutely Holly and a great point. You know with every great benefit there comes risk and I think that’s one of the things that businesses really need to keep a sharp eye on. When I think about the key risks related to technology and in no way am I going to be able to summarise all those risks. But I think that the first and most obvious one is with every piece of technology, with every investment in a solution to help us reduce variability, and with regards to managing our systems or getting more information with regards to how our processes or how our supply chains are working it also increases an avenue into our operations and into our businesses.

That means there are increased avenues for cyber-attacks and increased avenues by which malicious actors can access and have an impact on the availability of our operations which I think is the most called out or most commonly thought of cyber-attack type through ransomware. But we can’t discount also that there are risks to our confidential information as we’re sharing, collaborating, and keeping more cloud-based records. There is also that particular risk associated with accessing our processes and manipulating the accuracy of the information and the data that we’re actually seeing.

The second risk, I think there’s so much focus on looking at suppliers of different technical solutions and how can we use and enable technology to help us to do our jobs better, brighter, faster, and smarter that really looking at getting that right supplier is a risk. You know if you don’t get the right supplier, you’ve got two key risks to your business. One is, is that it actually doesn’t deliver or holistically the technology just isn’t fit for purpose, and it doesn’t keep up with change. There’s a real risk that we can have a major investment and it just doesn’t get us the return on that investment.

And secondly, as we’re going out and looking at all the different ways that we can use technology within our business to help us manage risk better, we can end up with multiple systems that may not talk to each other. We might have great technology in place, but we’ve actually increased the level of complexity and how we manage risk in the businesses.

And I think finally and an important one that I always make sure that when talking to our clients to highlight is, just because we have technology doesn’t mean that we don’t need that human expertise any longer within our business. We can’t discount the importance of the need for analysis, for interpretation to help drive the decisions from the data that’s being created by the technology that we’re employing to help us manage risk better.

Those are really kind of my top three when talking to clients and thinking about the types of risks that they need to be considering if they are looking at various technology and data solutions.

And how should businesses address these risks?

I think first and foremost as food safety professionals, clearly, we’re not technology gurus and we’re not IT specialists but we are best placed to understand the impact and risk that actually technology can have on the products and processes that we use in our operations. Best placed to understand what benefits we want from that technology as well as we need to ensure that we have an active role in not only selecting the technology and making sure that that’s actually keyed into the problems that we’re trying to solve and the types of data that we want from that technology solution.

We need to make sure that we’re thinking about how we map that data, how that data is going to be used and actually really looking at and comparing to the science that we know with regards to our products and our processes. And ensure that the actual outputs of that technology solution are going to generate insight that we can take action based on.

Once we’ve got that technology sourced out and we understand that we’ve got the right technology and it's delivering the things that we need it to deliver, we need to also think about the types of people, and we need to think about what types of expertise that we need in the people that are going to use that technology.

We need to think about what upskilling needs to be undertaken with those individuals, and how we redeploy those individuals to make them more focused not so on checking the checker but actually looking at and interpreting the information that’s being delivered by technology.

And then finally, we need to think about how we use our systems to manage any incidents and test those systems to make sure that those incident response systems are effective and controlling. That we have a really clear line of sight with regard to any additional risks that the use of technology may be bringing to our business and that we can actually take action to protect our brand and manage the risk to our products and our consumers.

So, we’ve discussed the role that technology and data have today, but what role will technology and data play in the future for the food industry?

The role of technology I think is very clear. Technology is going to help us overcome a number of the challenges as an industry that we need to ensure our ongoing agility and our ongoing resilience and actually the manufacture of safe food.

I think data is where it gets very interesting, and the role that data is going to play with regards to how we manage and mitigate risk into the future. You know, we have come to a point whereby change is the norm for us, things are changing so rapidly and there are so many variables that we’re trying to manage that it’s really through data that we’re going to actually get and be most effective with regards to how we actually manage risk moving forward.

Risk is dynamic and when you have increasing amounts of change in the day-to-day ways in which we need to work that risk and the level of its dynamic nature exponentially increases. So, when I think about kind of what role data will play in the future of the food industry, I see it kind of in three key areas.

One clearly is critical to giving us intelligence and the need for intelligence is about what and how and where there are potential risks has never been greater. We’re increasingly seeing our clients coming back to us and saying, we want more than just understanding where we’ve got non-conformities coming out of audits, we want to understand how we compare to those like us, to those near us to how our sites compare to one another. Benchmarking is the key starting point with regard to how we’re going to use and the importance of the data in making us more intelligent with regard to the way that we do business.

Secondly, it’s giving us insight into our own operations but also how our own operations fit into that bigger global picture. The data and having access to our data, world data as well as potentially our supplier’s data is really imperative to help us track, monitor, and make decisions, key decisions with regards to what business we want to do, what products we want to manufacture and whom do we want to work with. In a nutshell, it really helps us to segment what and how we focus our expertise, our technical resources, and our day-to-day work strings with regard to finding where and what is most critical to our business.

And then finally, I see data, many people talk about understanding predictive risk. I like to put it as having foresight, really being able to use data and really that broad landscape of what is happening in the world to help us identify places of early warning to our business and our brand. And really then be able to take selective intervention with regards to making changes with respect to how we do work, where we source materials, what types of actions we need to check to make sure that we’re not at risk, we’re not putting our brand at risk.

I guess in a nutshell that then leads to looking at bringing together all of those various risk profiles both within our organisation, and across our brand, and really looking at how we combine data. I guess when I think about data moving forward and think about kind of those three key aspects of how to use data to enhance the way that we actually manage brand risk within our business. From a food safety and a product quality perspective, it’s bringing those key pieces of information and data together to give us one beautiful profile with regards to where are those greatest areas of risk that need and warrant our attention to keep consumers safe.

Increasingly though we’re having to also look at various other types of risk factors that we need to think about to protect our brand more holistically. So when I see how we’ll use data in the future moving forward, we will then start to take that food safety and that product quality and integrity data, start marrying it with data with regards to social, human rights types of data and tracking what we do, look at the environmental data and what the impacts our products and our operations are having on the climate and having on the world as a whole.

So really the future for me from a role that data plays is critical in developing one single holistic risk profile that really starts to help us drive overall levels of maturity with regards to the systems that we have in place in our organisation to ensure brand trust and product assurance.

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