8 Things to Know about the Food Supply Chain Right Now

Tia Glave and Jill Stuber, co-founders of food safety consulting group Catalyst, break down eight supply chain trends food safety professionals need to know to manage risk while continuing to produce safe, quality products.

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Food safety is all about prevention, and lately, companies have been forced to double down on those efforts.

“That is absolutely the core of what we do: planning for incidents that may cause some type of risk in our food that it might not be safe,” said Tia Glave, food safety professional and co-founder of Catalyst, a food safety consulting group.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the industry has been navigating a supply chain crisis that has caused limited access to not only ingredients, but also supplies such as PPE, chemicals and packaging, all needed to keep products safe. That, coupled with the shift in the labor market and the war in Ukraine, has caused companies to re-examine their crisis plans and develop new processes to adapt.

“What we see in the food industry is that many organizations are trying to figure out alternative ways to get the ingredients while still producing a safe, quality product,” said Glave.

The good news is that food safety professionals are used to developing crisis plans. It’s part of the job. The challenge, Glave said, is, “How can we leverage what we’ve been through to challenge our systems further? Because the supply chain issues aren’t going anywhere.”

With the goal of moving forward and learning from past crises in mind, Glave and Catalyst co-founder Jill Stuber detailed eight supply chain trends companies can anticipate in the coming year and beyond.

1. Supply is still difficult to obtain.

The industry should continue to prepare for a shortage in commodity, said Glave.

“Supply is still really difficult,” she said. “And we haven’t seen much of a change between last year or even when we were deep in 2020 during the pandemic. We should expect to continue to see the things that we’ve been seeing over these last couple of years. There’s really no sign of it slowing down, from my perspective.”

Stuber added that shortages don’t just apply to ingredients, but also supplies and equipment — “the things that we need to keep product safe and protected.”

During the height of the pandemic, Glave said, cleaning chemicals were hard to come by for food safety professionals to clean up after a production run, since most of the supply was being directed to hospitals and the medical industry. These are the kinds of supplies companies must keep in mind when planning for crisis.

“It’s not just ingredients; it’s packaging, it’s PPE, it’s chemicals, it’s all of the above,” said Glave.

2. Worker shortages and burnout continue to be an issue.

The industry will continue to see a turnover in the workforce, Glave said.

“We talk a lot about focusing on the well-being of your people and making sure your people have coaches to help them to develop,” she said. “If you’re not focusing on those things, you should expect to continue to see a turnover, because that trend is not slowing down.”

The current labor crisis reached a critical point during what is now known as the Great Resignation, when the number of workers who quit their jobs skyrocketed.

“I think that was a pivotal time for organizations to say, ‘How are we taking care of people? How are we supporting them? We keep saying they’re our greatest asset. Do we actually honor that?’ ” Stuber said.

Some of the shift in mindset about work is generational, said Stuber.

“Before, we used to just be like, ‘Well, we need to work, and we need to have a paycheck so that we can have a roof over our head and food on the table.’ But that’s shifting,” said Stuber. “People are like, ‘No, I want to do something that matters. I want more of a life with purpose, and I’m willing to put that as a priority over maybe where I work or how that work gets done.’ I think that we’ll continue to see that shortage if we don’t adjust what we do from an organizational standpoint, whether it’s the actual jobs we’re doing or how we do things.”

Companies need to realize that much of the workforce feels overloaded, overworked, tired, stressed and burnt out, Glave said.

“When that happens, you’re really not getting the best out of your people,” she said. “It will continue to trend in that way unless organizations do something about it.”

At Catalyst, Stuber and Glave have created a program that focuses on transforming technical experts into leaders.

“We see that people are overloaded, and they’re trying to move an organization forward, but nothing’s happening,” Glave said. “So, they really get burnt out. We help give leaders the tools in order to not feel that way and not have a workload that’s beyond their capacity and really help them figure out standard work processes and how to influence others and how to manage risk — all of those pieces that are sometimes missing from a role that cause them to feel overworked, burnt out and not happy with their jobs.”

3. There is increased risk for food fraud.

As ingredients become scarce, there is an inherent increased risk for food fraud and adulteration.

“Back in the day, they used to dilute milk to get more money,” Stuber said. “The same type of things we’ve heard stories about and we’ve seen, have happened over the past couple of years. People are trying to extend the supply or leverage if they have a supply and try and make a few bucks off of that. I think that is really the heart of some of the food safety risk that comes from these supply chain disruptions that are typically not on our radar to consider.”

4. The demand for new, innovative products pushes on.

Regardless of the curveballs the industry is dodging due to world events, consumers continue to demand new, innovative products with rare or novel ingredients.

“[They want] these ingredients that are only sourced from, you know, one country at a certain sea level,” Stuber joked.

The challenge for food safety professionals, she said, is finding a way to support innovation and meet high demand given the supply chain challenges.

This is especially difficult for small- or medium-sized businesses whose leverage in contracting supplies may not be as strong as a large company’s, Stuber explained.

Glave said there’s no easy answer to obtaining a specific ingredient that’s hard to source. Her first plan of action would be finding an alternate supplier and then thinking creatively to solve the issue.

“Is there someone else that produces this product or this ingredient?” she asked. “Or are there organizations or businesses that can, but they just don’t right now, and you should partner with them to help to create it? How do you get creative in this space so that you can have alternate suppliers? Because if that supplier can no longer make your product, you are essentially out of business. Or you’re scrambling to try to find someone else. That’s when mistakes happen.”

Companies must analyze the risk of having just one supplier and decide if that’s the best decision for the organization. If not, they can consider pausing and reformulating or incorporating the ingredient in a different way, Glave said.

5. Companies are figuring out how to juggle multiple suppliers.

Companies that had multiple suppliers fared better than those that did not during the onset of the pandemic, said Glave.

However, securing those suppliers is easier said than done.

“You have to think about it in terms of size of the organization,” said Glave. “A lot of small businesses and start-ups don’t have the resources to be able to onboard multiple suppliers, or they don’t have the buying power. That makes it a little bit more difficult for small business owners to have this robust crisis management plan. It doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t work towards it.”

Sometimes, larger companies don’t have multiple suppliers in place either, because they haven’t prioritized it, Glave said.

“Because it takes a lot of work to approve suppliers year after year,” she explained. “You have to look at them on an ongoing basis. It’s not just an approval and that’s it. You have to continue to manage their risk and understand their business and how it relates to your business year over year. And that takes time and resources to do.”

Extra costs are often involved, too, Stuber said.

“If I have multiple suppliers and I contract 50% with one and 50% with another, that may mean I don’t get the best price with either of them,” she said. “As an organization, is that an extra cost that’s something we can take on? There are so many different levels of complexity like that that factor into how to actually have multiple suppliers.”

6. Transparency in communication is crucial.

Building healthy relationships with suppliers by maintaining an open dialogue can go a long way. The industry can mitigate supply chain challenges simply by having open conversations, Stuber said.

“I think the industry has gotten better at understanding that suppliers aren’t just this entity that lives outside of them in a black box, and they just trust that when it gets to their door, it’s good,” she said. “I think there’s been a lot of work on understanding that that relationship is so important, and transparency is really needed to have an efficient process.”

Suppliers have been known to be cautious when it comes to communicating the amount of supply available, Stuber said.

“I’ve seen situations where they’ve been guarded to be able to say, ‘We’re not going to have supply for you,’ ” she said. “They’re like, ‘Well, we’re still evaluating it.’ I think when we can really go, ‘Wow, we’re not sure what that will look like,’ it really helps build that transparency and that trust that we need so that we can collectively be a stronger food source. When we can be more open and trusting and understand what the situation really looks like, it will allow for all of us to be able to make better choices and understand what we need to do going forward.”

7. Companies need to place an intensified focus on crisis management and prevention.

Part of developing a crisis plan is looking at worst-case scenarios and trying to prepare for them. Now that the world has lived through some worst-case scenarios that many thought could never happen, it’s time to leverage that knowledge and challenge systems further, said Stuber.

“We know there will be further supply chain interruptions,” she said. “As an organization, if we can actually be intentional and take the time to navigate through what those scenarios could be and how we can respond differently, or maybe through what we’ve learned, that will put us in a much better position when this happens next.”

Added Glave, “Right now, it’s a pandemic. But it could be a tornado, it could be a hurricane, it could be a war, it could be a tsunami. It could be anything that could cause a disruption in the supply chain. So, it’s critical to have that crisis management plan for things like this, for unforeseeable incidents happening that could disrupt your supply chain.”

Companies need that contingency plan to make sure that if something happens in the supply chain, they’re still able to produce their products.

Major food safety incidents occur when companies don’t have a plan and work outside of standard processes, Glave said.

“When a crisis happens, you’re trying to work outside of what you normally do, whether that’s getting a new supplier that you haven’t evaluated the risk, or you are doing a modified version of your risk assessment to try to get the supplier in quickly,” Glave said. “Or you have to use a different type of equipment to manufacture product because your current equipment can’t function because you can’t get the parts in, or whatever it happens to be. That’s when we start seeing food safety issues.”

A crisis management plan ensures those issues are not outside of standard processes.

“Doing that work and following your normal processes will help eliminate some of those food safety risks that can come along with rushing to get to a certain spot so that you can make production,” Glave said.

8. New technology can help ease supply chain issues.

New technology can aid companies in anticipating and avoiding supply chain issues.

“We’ve been part of some technology webinars to help companies consider how technology can help, because it can, whether it’s traceability or tracking or the logistics of where you have product stored versus where it’s going and the timing and FIFO [First In, First Out] and all of those other aspects,” said Stuber. “As we see the supply shortage, those things get further under the microscope, and software can help.”

Technology can also streamline supplier communication and approval, Glave said.

“They can upload their documents relatively quickly,” she said. “You can review them. You can communicate to them that they’ve been approved, or they need to go back and look at this documentation or this process. It’s an automatic communication structure, which is great.”

The time and energy spent navigating supply chain issues can tax an organization, Stuber said. Focusing on the lessons learned during such a tumultuous time can help.

“Everybody is living in this state of uncertainty, whether it’s our top leaders wondering, ‘Will this product actually come in for us?’ to people who are on the line who are like, ‘OK, what are we making today? Are we going to have a full day of production?’ ” Stuber said. “I think about what we’ve all learned, and I know there have been so many good things shared out of the industry, webinars and conferences about what we’ve learned from COVID. I encourage people to really lean into those.”

Everybody’s experience of the supply chain crisis is slightly different, Stuber said.

“They may have something that you’re like, ‘Oh, that could actually happen to us, but we didn’t even think of it,’ ” she said. “I think there’s really a lot of power in that knowledge-sharing.”

Glave agreed: “Again, the idea is to plan for these things. You have to connect with other people and learn from others and share best practices in order to plan for something that you haven’t experienced.”

The author is managing editor of QA.

July August 2022
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