The rapid pace of advancements in food safety technologies are going to add to the pressures food and beverage manufacturers are currently under, said Mike Robach, vice-president of food safety, quality and regulatory affairs for Cargill, Minneapolis. Mr. Robach spoke Jan. 22 during an education session at the Dairy Forum, which is hosted by the International Dairy Foods Association and taking place this week in Palm Desert.
While such emerging technologies as whole genome sequencing, blockchain and data analytics may present challenges, they also may create opportunities, he said.
“At Cargill we operate 1,500 food production plants in over 70 countries,” Mr. Robach said. “Our supply chain is really a network. And on top of it we have the increased complexity of governments and regulatory oversight, transparency and consumer trust.”
It is within that framework that Cargill is working with the emerging new technologies. Because of the specificity of whole genome sequencing, for example, regulators can link outbreaks to specific products more rapidly.
“Disease detection is becoming much more sophisticated,” Mr. Robach said. “I can tell you from personal experience that two illnesses can be considered a cluster and trigger a recall.
“New pathogens are emerging, and those never associated with certain commodities are now being linked. What about E. coli and dairy? It won’t grow in a freezer, but it will survive. What about wheat flour? Who would have thought?”
The opportunity for Cargill is how the company is using whole genome sequencing to its benefit.
“It (whole genome sequencing) allows us to trace the ecology of microorganisms from the farm through processing,” he said. “We do carcass mapping in our meat plants; we are doing mapping of our flour operations. It is extremely valuable information to have to understand your critical control points.”
The challenge is regulators think it is a great technology as well. Mr. Robach said what needs to be understood is identification of a pathogen in a plant does not imply a link to a food safety incidence.
“They still have to have the epidemiology,” he said. “They have to have the link between the patient and the food.
“What we are finding with whole genome sequencing is some of these unique organisms aren’t really unique. Now, when they (regulators) have gotten a look at the longer sequences they are finding organisms they thought were different are actually the same.”
Blockchain and big data
The supply chain technology blockchain is one way food and beverage companies may enhance transparency and gain the trust of more consumers.
“The technology is fantastic,” Mr. Robach said. “We’ve had great success with it. Right now the big challenge is how do you get all of the players in a supply chain engaged in blockchain? You’ve got to incentivize the whole of your supply chain to get involved. For us that means we have to figure out how to incentivize a cocoa farmer in Ghana to participate.”
Cargill has successfully used blockchain in its turkey operations. Mr. Robach readily admitted that the reason Cargill chose turkey is because it was an easy process. Using the technology with such traditional commodities as corn, wheat and soy, for example, will be much more difficult.
“We have wheat from two or three harvests waiting in bins for blending,” he said. “These are things that are going to be very challenging.”
Data analytics, which Mr. Robach also called “big data” is another tool manufacturers may use to ensure and enhance food safety.“From my perspective, we do a good job of collecting data; we don’t do a very good job of analyzing it and identifying trends,” he said. “To me this will get us ahead of the curve. It will let us be proactive instead of reactive.”