Posted: Tuesday, August 14 2019
In the first part of this two-part series on Food Safety and Shifting Global Pressures, we looked at how the Environment, Logistics and Technology pose threats to the safety of the global food system. Today we finish up with three additional pressures: The Impact of Labour Dynamics, Government Policy and Consumer Preference.
By Jennifer van de Ligt, PhD
The Impact of Labour Dynamics
It’s said that more than 28% of the global population is directly or indirectly employed by agriculture. However, labour shortages exist globally, forcing the food industry to increasingly use mechanization and temporary and day labour. Within the United States, many food companies find themselves perpetually understaffed and/or reliant on day labour which means that in the context of food safety, the training of employees is essential. Unfortunately, many companies may be operating with a labour force that is minimally trained at best. Mechanization may alleviate personnel shortages, but it does not solve food safety issues. Rather, mechanization presents a different host of food safety concerns – for example, the sanitization of processing equipment and dealing with unintentional environmental/soil contamination resulting from mechanical harvesting.
Many food companies find themselves perpetually understaffed and/or reliant on day labour
Governmental policy also affects food safety. For example, the recent focus on limiting legal immigration into the United States, and the identification and deportation of undocumented immigrants, have amplified labour shortages. Experts say that a substantial number of farm workers are undocumented and yet they fill an essential role in the food system. Leaders in the food safety arena in many other countries around the world have had to make changes to ensure their products meet the standards international customers require as a result of government updates to their food codes. And policies directed at ensuring the safety of new ingredients or methods of manufacture are evolving continuously, and often lag behind actual food system innovation. This is particularly pertinent as the world responds to climate change, addresses food waste, and creates products consumers demand. Finally, the current focus on tariff structures are shifting sourcing within food system. This means that the food safety of current imports may differ from historical imports, thereby placing even more pressure on businesses to ensure their products meet food safety requirements.
And finally, we must not overlook the role of the consumer in food safety. For example, consumers in wealthy countries waste almost as much food as the entire net food production of sub-Saharan Africa each year and recovery efforts for this waste must address food safety. Consumer preferences and the rise in foods claiming attributes like organic, natural, clean, minimally processed, raw, etc. create additional food safety pressures. In an environment where consumers may not be taking personal responsibility for following basic USDA food safety principles (clean, separate, cook, and chill), these minimally processed-to-raw foods—which require strict cold chain distribution and proper consumer handling—pose a major food safety challenge.
The future of food safety is under pressure and evolving rapidly. Industry’s preparedness and willingness to gain a broader understanding of the integrated nature of food systems will be the key to ensuring food safety across global food systems. In addition, learning how to lead in this interconnected food landscape will be essential to people’s careers as well as every food organization’s food safety preparedness. Educational programs designed to help future leaders bridge the current skills gap in the food system are crucially important, now more than ever. These future leaders need the tools to drive the change critical for many companies to succeed while we feed a world that is growing ever more interdependent, and ever more populous.
About the Author
Dr. van de Ligt is currently Director, Integrated Food Systems Leadership Program (IFSL) and the Associate Director, Food Protection and Defense Institute, both operated by the University of Minnesota. Her extensive background in animal feed and human food production, nutrition, product development, and food safety and regulations is a strong asset in supporting the IFSL program to improving the leadership and systems thinking capabilities of early to mid-career professionals affiliated with any aspect of the food system.