2022 Food safety trends: Learning to live with COVID

2022 Food safety trends: Learning to live with COVID

by Sue Jones
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As the United States enters its third pandemic year, the influences of the virus on the food industry will continue, even as supply chain partners embrace new trends and discard old ones this year not just to survive, but thrive.

John Rowley, vice president of NSF International’s Global Food Division, recently discussed his views on 2022 trends in the food industry, with a focus on food safety issues. NSF specializes in food safety training, testing, consulting and other services.

Rowley said all segments of the supply chain, from producers through retailers and restaurants, continue to shift to meet challenges, even as the pandemic has led to staffing woes and exacerbated supply chain gridlock.

The major trends anticipated for the industry, according to Rowley, include:

  • Rising demand for home delivery;
  • Staffing crisis;
  • Opportunities to cut food waste; and
  • Sustainability.

Knock Knock. Who’s there? Dinner
As coronavirus variants continue to curb dining at restaurants and elevate uncertainty in the sector, home meal delivery will remain popular in 2022, Rowley said. That includes traditional restaurants, pop-ups and ghost kitchens. An NSF survey released this month highlights pandemic concerns among quick service restaurant employees and decision makers across the globe.

According to the survey of almost 700 people, 38 percent of poll respondents said they feel added pressure to prepare food faster. NSF reported 22 percent said home delivery has increased food risks.

Rowley said foodservice establishments, regardless of their business models, have an obligation to serve quality, safe food. That includes preparation and how food is treated during transportation to the consumer, or the “post-order supply chain,” as Rowley calls it.

“As an industry, we need to help these companies be successful, help them have a opportunity to be successful so the consumer can get a satisfactory product,” Rowley said.

Now Hiring
A staffing crisis in the foodservice and other industries threatens recruitment and retention, he said. 

“The staffing shortages are a fundamental issue, but what are the unintended consequences?” Rowley said, pointing out that retail and foodservice outlets are under pressure to perform with pre-pandemic hours of operation, staffing and services.

“Does that put food safety to the fore?” he said.

The issue won’t disappear once the pandemic is over — however that’s decreed — and Rowley said efforts need to focus on a campaign to promote food safety careers at the college level.

“I think as an industry we have to make sure this (food safety) is seen as an interesting job and a critical role for the industry,” he said. “We need to do a better job marketing that, working together to make it a satisfactory and enjoyable career for those who do it.”

Rowley said long-time food safety professionals are choosing to retire from the industry as the pandemic continues. Their collective institutional knowledge is critical to retain, he said.

Waste Not … Waste Not
The food industry has taken great strides in recent years to curb food waste, from “upcycling” expired but edible food to selling “ugly” produce that doesn’t fit industry standards. This year’s food waste issue will be ensuring the failing supply chain doesn’t escalate a food safety concern to food wastage, Rowley said.

“When food gets delayed in transportation, it puts pressure on the storage and distribution quality controls,” he said. “ … If the food safety standards are good, it’s not really a food safety issue. It becomes more of a food wastage issue.”

In the early days of the pandemic, some retailers and foodservice operators began sourcing from closer suppliers. One example are the Eastern U.S. retailers that bought leafy greens from nearby small hydroponic indoor farms. Switching to local growers is trend that continues, he said.

Sustainability, as a Trend, Sustains
As more corporations chart their sustainability programs and release annual reports showcasing those steps, sustainability programs are gaining steam in every food sector. Rowley said sustainability is a huge metric to measure the performance of a company, along with food safety and finances.

“As we go forward, companies need to be measured on not just traditional financial metrics, which tend to be the core measurement of a company’s performance. I think we should elevate the importance of sustainability,” he said.

Post-Pandemic View
Rowley cautions companies against reverting to pre-pandemic trends once life returns to “more normal,” without assessing the business climate first.

“I think when the crisis is over, it doesn’t mean these trends will — or should — stop. Never waste a good crisis, if there is good that can come out of it.”

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