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Why is detecting emerging food safety risks so hard?

June 23 2021

Detecting emerging risks for food safety professionals is difficult because it takes experience that comes with time. A senior food safety person has seen other issues in the past blossom from small, early events into something more major....

Detecting emerging risks for food safety professionals is difficult because it takes experience that comes with time.  A senior food safety person has seen other issues in the past blossom from small, early events into something more major.  They have amassed a variety of different, credible, sources and can then tap into a strong network of industry peers to further verify information they come across.  The food producers or retailers who have these types of team members are incredibly fortunate. 

For those of you familiar with the SGS Digicomply team you will hopefully know by now that we spend a significant amount of time interacting with current and prospective clients.  We strive to listen to what the challenges are they are facing, and we then set out to design software and services that attempt to solve them.  Through these conversations our own team had begun to uncover a need to have a single location for regulatory, food safety and risk management that different users could access.  We wanted to expand on these findings so we set out to dive deeper into the topic by conducting dozens of interviews with the scientific community, food safety professionals, and government agency staff.  We complemented the interviews by running surveys with hundreds of respondents.  The results of these findings are worth sharing as they served as the driving principles behind the future evolution of SGS Digicomply.

The main challenges for managing food safety risks

In both a survey conducted (85 responses) as well as over 25 interviews given, the following three were the most cited challenges:

1. Time

The responsibilities of food safety professionals are expansive.  The day-to-day operational requests of the organization means that proactive activities can be the first go.  Often the time a person would want to spend reading and correlating information, validating certain sources or analyzing the supply chain often ends up being minimized.  The professionals relying on years of experience may be able to do it through their sheer efficiency but even then, the number of products being sold and markets being sourced from continues to put a burden on them as well.

One consequence of this is that 40% of respondents in our survey stated that they are not able to perform any systematic scanning to gather information on emerging risks.

2. Quality and volume of information

All of us have by now performed a search in Google on a particular topic only to be provided with hundreds of thousands of results. As you work through the various sources provided you have doubts about their credibility. Additional effort is then required to corroborate the source via other people or sources. It takes time and you are still left with a degree of uncertainty.
Never before have individuals had access to such a large amount of information coming from all corners of the world. This is cause for excitement. On the other hand, this democratization of information means that anyone with a smartphone and internet connection can create, publish and distribute content. How do you manage the volume and ensure quality information? Technology can certainly play a role through processing power and machine learning but it still needs to be designed by experts who know the subject matter. One way it can be done is by extracting entities, i.e. training the system to essentially read a document and recognize key information in it, and then determining relations with other, potentially related, documents (we will go into this more in a future post).

3. Detecting a risk early enough

The earlier you are made aware of an issue that will impact your business the better. We all know this. On the other hand, once something is published by a government agency or mainstream media outlet it is often too late to put any well thought out plan together. What this means is that a food safety professional needs to broaden their reach to sources that then impact other sources. These could be signals from scientific publications, influencing NGOs, or consumer perception coming from social media. Beyond the breadth of sources alone also here it means that their relationships need to somehow be established and measured. By creating a “web” of relationships across ingredients, topics and countries it becomes possible to detect risks earlier by finding connections that don’t appear to the naked eye.

What would a solution look like that would make you twice as effective?

Our customer research wanted to understand what a solution could look like that would bring significant improvement to a user’s work.  What was clear in all our interviews was that another tool thrown into an already complicated environment is not what users are looking for.  Instead something disruptive was needed that would move them into higher strategic levels of work.  In “blue sky” scenario what would this look like? 

As a software and food safety team we do need to work within certain confines.  Wishes to be able to “make a copy of myself” or “have a magic wand” are beyond our capabilities!  More modest requests like “having information residing in one location” or being able to set alerts for “what is trending” are more within the realm of possibilities for a well-designed software system. 

We therefore took all this feedback to heart and set out to make a version of SGS Digicomply that food safety professionals could use to see disproportionate gains to their productivity.  We did this by doubling the number of sources in the system, providing new forms of (predicative) analytics, and connecting to social media.  Please watch these pages for more information.  We can’t wait to share it with you when it is ready!  

Tags: food safety, emerging risks


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