From COVID to compliance, technology has answers to troubling questions
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The chaos that the COVID-19 pandemic inflicted on the manufacturing sector and those who keep it running underscores the need to keep the supply chain operating effectively and rapidly.

In the early weeks of the pandemic in spring 2020, shopping habits changed drastically and tested the ability of food, beverage and consumer packaged goods companies to keep customers supplied with high-demand items. From demand for toilet paper and hand sanitizers to certain produce at grocery stores, consumers showed their concerns about health and the need to cook more at home.

At the same time, companies that supply foodservice operations saw orders plummet as restaurant, institutional cafeterias and similar customers closed or shifted to takeout or reduced outdoor seating models.

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Food, beverage, and CPG manufacturers have responded to the pandemic with the backdrop of changing and increasing regulations that were already complicating in-plant and packinghouse processes.

Those industries are turning to Plant Management Software to track everything from the performance of new supply channels and customers to worker safety in facilities and fields. That includes changing work schedules, tracking COVID-19 quarantined employees, and new policies for social distancing and basic screening before shifts.

SafetyChain Software has seen pandemic-related interest from food, beverage, and CPG companies and from customers adapting their platforms to meet COVID-19 challenges to potential customers hampered by piecemeal paper and digital systems that fail to give an overview of operations.

“There’s a whole new element of Plant Management Software that now begins to expose the whole EHS (environmental health and safety) side of the plant,” said Barry Maxon, SafetyChain CEO and co-founder. “COVID showed the industry how a platform like this can very easily adapt to a whole new way of doing business because the (software) infrastructure was there in place.”

Companies are tracking personal protection equipment inventories, reviewing plant specs to configure social distancing policies on the production line and in warehouses, and even considering ventilation needs with the spread of the virus in mind.

Maxon said he spoke to a senior vice president of quality at a company that uses SafetyChain’s platform who was forced to quarantine at home after testing positive for COVID-19.

He told me he was blown away by the fact that when he was quarantined at home, he could see what was going on in real-time in all 18 plants across the country, Maxon said.

Regulatory compliance

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Food and Drug Administration have stressed that the pandemic is a worker safety concern, not a food safety concern. But the virus has dramatically influenced how food and beverage companies conduct business in their plants, including food safety audits mandated by the Food Safety Modernization Act.

In March 2020, the FDA halted in-person inspections of foreign food facilities, citing travel restrictions. Inspections at borders continued, but “mission-critical” in-person audits became the norm when audits in the United States became problematic as travel restrictions increased.

In November 2020, the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement and Western Growers, which represent produce growers, unveiled a virtual audit program to help the industry maintain FSMA compliance. The FDA also announced an interest in virtual audits as an option even beyond the outbreak.

Plant Management Software can facilitate that offsite oversight, Maxon said.

“You couldn’t travel anymore, but you still had to continue operations, you had to continue running your plant,” he said. “How do you audit your suppliers? You can’t go see them. How do we conduct a GFSI audit, but we cant have an auditor in our space? . . . We suddenly had to learn to operate differently because we had these constraints on travel and  physical presence that upended how we think about the business.”

The pandemic highlights the need to share data with suppliers and customers easily. Plant Management Software is SaaS-based (Software as a System), which gives users flexibility.

“We have customers that have used it to conduct audits. We have customers that now have co-manufacturers supplying their data right through the system,” Maxon said. “They don’t have to manually review records or visit facilities and can see quality and compliance in real-time.”

Food safety

The pandemic delayed the rollout of the FDA’s “New Era of Smarter Food Safety” from spring 2020 to summer. The initiative stresses the need for food companies, particularly leafy greens grower-shippers, to ditch paper records in favor of digital tools. When the FDA unveiled the long-awaited traceability rule covering leafy greens and other produce and food items this past fall, it didn’t necessarily mandate digital record-keeping.

The FDA has faced hurdles in past E. coli outbreaks traced to leafy greens because investigations included poring over paper documents and hand-written information in some cases. Through the traceability rule, the FDA says companies should submit an electronic spreadsheet with traceability information to the agency within 24 hours of a request.

Maxon said companies that use Plant Management Software solutions for food safety oversight can satisfy the FDA’s reporting requirements and share the data with retail and other customers with their own set of requirements for suppliers.

“Our customers are winning business and expanding their footprint with retail customers because they have access to data where they can prove a higher degree of compliance,” he said.

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