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Food for thought: Safetytech in our Food Systems

Vincent Doumeizel, Director of the Food Programme at Lloyd’s Register Foundation, speaks about the challenges facing the food industry and why safetytech is needed worldwide to combat these.

Why is safetytech - the collective term for technology, products and services that are starting to significantly enhance safety management in safety-critical industries and infrastructure - so important?  

An estimated 600 million people, that’s almost 1 in 10 people in the world, fall ill as a result of eating contaminated food and 420,000 die, every year. Food systems were built in the aftermaths of WW2 and now need to be revolutionised by life science and digital innovation. This revolution needs to happen in a safe way, for consumers - by preventing foodborne disease, for the industry - by preventing food security issues and for the environment – by tackling global warming and plastic pollution. Food supply chains are highly fragmented globally, with multiple small stakeholders, often with no barriers to entry, allowing anyone to produce food for networks, especially domestically. Of all the supply chains, food supply chains are the most complex, and the fragmented markets that subsequently arise can result in low levels of transparency. Innovation is critical, and the revolutionised system needs to leverage any possible innovations benefitting this challenging supply chain.

What would you say are the biggest challenges currently faced by the food industry?

The rapid growth of the food population and the move towards more calorie demanding diets are the biggest challenges. It’s estimated that in the next 50 years or so, we will have to produce as much food as we produced over the last 10,000 Years. The lack of resources and lack of transparency is challenging, and can increase the risk of fraud, intentional adulteration and the emergence of new pathogens.

What are the key enabling technologies currently enhancing food safety globally?

Historically, technology investments in food have been hampered by low margins and the need to keep food affordable. Consequently, technology and data science innovations have been limited in the industry to date. Thankfully, now the situation is changing and many elements are about to converge, to shape a new model for food safety, including:  

  • more demanding clients
  • data sciences such as big data, the Internet of Things, blockchains, and predictive analytics
  • life sciences such as microbial footprints, DNA, or stable isotopes
  • and new productions such as seaweeds, clean meat, or insects
Future of food safety auditing webinar

Tell us about Lloyd’s Register Foundation’s research, innovation, and education initiatives making the world a safer place.

The Foundation is heavily involved in these areas, our coalition on safe seaweed production, for example, is scaling up the use of new technology to monitor safe seaweed production and our partnership with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations is bringing Food Safety education to Africa and leveraging new remote training capacities.

The Lloyd’s Register Safety Accelerator, a joint initiative between Lloyd’s Register and Lloyd’s Register Foundation, has been working to apply digital startup solutions to tackle safety challenges globally, since 2018. Rapid detection for allergens at consumer level and pathogens at processor level, using state of the art new technologies, are key to enable real safety at each step of the food supply chain and have been two of the most important challenges tackled by the Accelerator to date.

The programme is currently partnered with PepsiCo, trialling a startup solution to revolutionise listeria detection in food. The winning startup, SnapDNA, and its innovative safetytech solution, provides a speedy 20-minute, sample-to-answer results for Listeria, Salmonella, and E. coli. Once this trial is complete and if it’s successful, it could be very impactful in terms of food safety.    

How do you think the Safety Accelerator, its startups and safetytech as a whole can help to enable a safer and more sustainable food supply chain?

Industry 4.0, also known as the industrial internet of things (IIoT), incorporates technology to create a completely connected industry. It collects information about processes, equipment performance, supplies and orders, and then aggregates big data to generate information from suppliers, manufacturers and customers. Traceability is critical in the food supply chain in order to increase safety of food products. It helps to provide the required level of transparency to clients and improve the discoverability of the root causes of problems that lead to food scandals. It also helps to identify and reward those who make efforts to minimise environmental, social and food safety risks in their production processes. Traceability supports sustainable economic growth, poverty reduction, food security and environmental protection, promoting food safety, and animal and plant health. However, the food supply chain is complex and fragmented, which greatly limits traceability.

Yet, new life science and data science innovations offer real opportunities to address this challenge. We need to connect the steps in food supply chains to make them more traceable and more understandable and, therefore, ultimately safer for consumers. The public already drives the change it wants to see, creating, for example, food fact apps that give greater clarity and readability into the precise content of food, like salts and sugars, but also the precise origin too. Each time they eat or drink, consumers are voting for the food system they believe in and the world they want to see, but they cannot ‘vote’ if they do not understand what is in their food and where it comes from. They demand greater clarity on food information and labelling, and this has consequences for traceability in the supply chain. We must develop new technologies to meet this consumer demand for traceability and safe food supply chains. The Safety Accelerator, and the global ecosystem it’s developing, is key to deliver noticeable improvements on this.

Where do you see safetytech going in the food industry in the next 5+ years?

The Safetytech focus should be on challenges that relate to the connection between physical food stuffs and digital records – so-called ‘phygital’ solutions. Unlike currency and insurance, food is a perishable physical asset, that can be substituted over the supply chain. The connection between the digital record and the physical asset is still missing. This new solution includes new markers for food such as stabilised isotopes, microbiomes, DNA, genomics, smart packaging and satellite monitoring, as well as better mapping for food stakeholders, remote and real-time monitoring of the supply chain, open platforms and online auditing.

Lastly, one of the side effects of traceability will be the inevitable need to reveal changes that must be made in the supply chain. Farmers, many of whom live in poor and vulnerable rural communities, will need to implement these changes. Education and research will help them limit unsafe practices and adapt to the transparent food supply chains of tomorrow.

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The Safetytech Report

Lloyd’s Register Foundation's new research forecasts that the combined global industry potential for the emerging safetytech market could grow to $863bn within three years.

Download the report now.

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