The Economic Strategy Behind the Adoption of Food Safety Technology

This article is an excerpt from an online panel discussion hosted by Burton Software on September 17, 2015. Start from the beginning of this seven-part series on innovations and development in food safety from the points of view of industry, technology, and policy or watch the entire panel discussion.

Our panelists are: Steven Burton (creator of Icicle cloud-based food safety application), Darin Detwiler (senior policy coordinator at STOP Foodborne Illness), and Michael Koeris (co-founder of Sample6 pathogen detection and control technology). Learn more about them at the end of this article.

Q5: We’ve talked a bit about the technology aspect and the potential for technological advancement to help increase education, the effectiveness of food safety plans, and detection methods. Technology and policy both have critical roles to play in ensuring a safer future for food. How can one help the other?

Koeris: I think it’s a very critical question because we are finding that the number of recalls increases not because the food safety system has become more unsafe but rather because we are placing greater emphasis on trying to detect where the actual dangers lurk. As Darin has said, we don’t exactly talk about “stranger danger” with regards to food safety, but everybody eats every day. For medical purposes only, it’s maybe 330 million people – that’s about a billion meals a day. So the volume is large and statistically speaking we will have problems. We need to use the newest technologies in order to facilitate the fastest detection and have really good communication in the food industry, not just for the regulator but also for the individual and larger food producers.

We also need to start having a less adversarial relationship between regulators and food producers, more data sharing and openness on all of these things. Interestingly, and maybe this is open for commentary too, the industry has made food safety a non-compete issue. That means that nobody wants to compete on the basis to say that “my food is safer than the other person’s”. However, that also means that they are generally not talking loudly about food safety. That needs to change.

Detwiler: That’s true. Technology is playing roles in different ways…I mean, everything from whole genome sequencing to the way that pathogens are being looked at. Recently, there was the listeria outbreak connected to Blue Bell ice cream. That was a very interesting scenario because the recall didn’t start with an investigation into illnesses. In fact, this investigation was looking for illnesses – it was through testing that they found the listeria existed, and then went through records to find hospital patients that had the testing done to prove the link between the sick patients with listeria and the ice cream. That had a major impact on the dairy industry and obviously the ice cream industry.

The CDC indicated that they had never thought of ice cream as being a vehicle for pathogens in the past, but what we’ve seen since then, as Mike was alluding to here, is that the dairy industry has various areas where they’re actually working together in that non-competitive mode to try to bring their resources together to make a change and then prove that food safety does save their reputation, their name brands, and the economy related to that industry.

Burton: When I hear Michael’s comment about the non-competition, it makes me wonder because a lot of food companies would rather the status quo remain. I mean, to set up and develop a comprehensive food safety program costs money and the margins are very, very thin, competition is high, and it’s expensive for them. So I would like to see food manufacturers who make the investment in food safety benefit on the marketing side from that investment. The fact that they’ve decided not to compete, en masse, is a unfortunate in that regard.

But in terms of the original question, I view it as a push and pull between the legislation pushing manufacturers and the retailers pulling them. Hopefully, this means that everybody is generally moving into greater food safety. The status quo is no longer going to be a technical position for most of these manufacturers. Once they cross that bridge and understand, “ok, we’re going to have to have food safety programs in place”, I think at that point, the question is, “how can we make that as efficient and painless as possible?” And that’s where the technology can help.

We work with clients all the time to deploy generic models and allow them to modify those models to suit their own businesses, essentially reducing the cost and make it effective for them to bring food safety programs online. What was a big surprise to me originally is that the food safety information of the company is usually closely held and there is more of an adversarial position between companies and the inspectors, whether they be from third-parties or from government. But what I’ve found, in practice, is that the companies that do make that investment want to capitalize on it by building better relationships with inspectors. We routinely get requests from all manner of state and federal authorities for read-only access to manufacturer’s food safety information so the inspectors can go in any time they want and look at that information. And I think that level of transparency is something that we should all strive to encourage and I would like to see that ubiquitous across the whole industry.

Detwiler: With that investment, too, there are many companies that are trying to justify a $5-10 million investment in new infrastructure and new technologies by saying that they don’t want to take another $100 million hit as they would even if it wasn’t their company impacted by an outbreak or a recall. We saw this with spinach and we even saw this with the Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak. It wasn’t just Jack in the Box, and it wasn’t just the company involved in the spinach outbreak, or it wasn’t just Blue Bell ice cream. Other, similar companies who have like products also suffer from economic losses due to consumer confidence and loss in sales. So that investment is very much being justified today and I’m glad to see that.

Burton: I heard that the peanut outbreak cost farmers a billion dollars in lost sales alone.

Detwiler: Not just farmers, but just the sheer number of companies that have peanut products, even pet food….so many companies, there were over 3900 different types of products recalled. Products that most consumers had never even thought of containing peanuts in one shape form or another. It’s not just the specific companies that suffer from economic losses during events like this, it’s also the commodity itself and related industries.

Burton: It does take vision from the company executives to be able to see that economic benefit. And a lot of smaller operations are optimistic about their odds of getting recalled and generally believe it will never happen to them.

Detwiler: True, well no one ever believes that these things will happen to them. That’s why there’s so much denial the problem exists and we don’t want to have this conversation about it because no one wants to talk about something that’s “comfort food”, etc. Scientifically proven: everyone eats. No one wants to have stigma associated with their food, with their favorite food, and things of that nature.

Burton: I think the work on the testing side that Michael’s company is doing will help because being able to quickly come to the point where you have a definitive test helps on the regulators in terms of being able to increase the volume of testing that they can do. So, I’d like to congratulate you for that.

Koeris:< I appreciate that, thanks. Actually, the interesting point is that what we try to do is recognizing there is a general lack of resources, let’s say just financially, within each individual food safety producer, especially small and medium sized ones. Any solution ‐ ours, yours, be it software or hardware or assay based – should help the bottom line. That’s on the manufacturers of solutions like ours to make sure our particular solution meets the food safety objective of that particular plant and organization as well as help the bottom line. That way, we can drive adoption. We’ve started making economic arguments and it’s helped us accelerate our own roll-out.

Burton: Excellent.

Up next from the audience: What can consumers do to create change in their communities in food safety?

Go to Part 6: Making Good Choices: Should Labels Indicate Food Safety Standards? >>>

Watch the whole panel discussion here.

About Our Panelists

Steven Burton, creator of Icicle Technologies Inc., is a software architect who started his career in architecture and moved into construction before establishing a successful manufacturing business in the ’90s. Moving into the software sector in the late ’90s, he established Burton Software in 1999 to specialize in the development of high-performance web-based software application. Burton initially designed Icicle to address the challenges to managing food safety for small to medium-sized stakeholders in the food industry. With Icicle, Burton strives to improve the safety of the world’s food supply by developing the tools to empower companies involved in the production, processing and distribution of food products to develop and verify codex-based HACCP systems.

Since the 1993 “Jack in the Box” E.coli outbreak, policymakers at the state, federal, and food industry levels have called upon Darin Detwiler as a significant voice in strengthening America’s food policies. Detwiler is a frequent speaker at national food policy conferences, delivering keynote speeches before government, industry, and university audiences across the USA and Europe. Detwiler is the senior policy coordinator at STOP Foodborne Illness, the nation’s leading nonprofit, public health organization dedicated to the prevention of illness and death from foodborne pathogens. He is the lead academic consultant and an adjunct professor in the MS Program in Regulatory Affairs of Food and Food Industry at Northeastern University, where he is also a Doctoral Candidate in Law and Policy with a focus on food policy.

Dr. Michael Koeris co-founded Sample6, Inc. and serves as its Vice President of Business Development. Koeris served as the President and Chief Operating Officer of Sample6. Koeris previously worked at KPMG Consulting and McKinsey & Company in Germany, as well as Flagship Ventures in Cambridge. Mr. Koeris was a recipient of the German Academic Exchange Fellowship (DAAD) to study at MIT. Koeris did his doctoral work on network approaches to combat antibiotic-tolerant bacteria with Professor James Collins, and co-developed Sample6’s technology, working with Tim. Koeris is a visiting scholar with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in the Biomedical Engineering Department at Boston University as well as at MIT. Prior to his doctoral degree, Koeris graduated with a M.S. in Biochemistry from the Free University of Berlin.

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