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Safety First: NSF and the Quest for Global Food Sustainability

Image credit: jaymethunt/Pixabay

While weekly headlines tout the efforts of major food companies and NGOs working to increase the sustainability of the food industry through reducing waste, improving packaging and responding to consumer demand for healthier choices, organizations such as NSF: The Public Health and Safety Organization are working behind the scenes on an often overlooked aspect of the food sustainability journey – safety.

Founded in 1944 as the National Sanitation Foundation, the name was changed to NSF International in 1990 as the company expanded its services beyond sanitation and into global markets. Today, NSF works with manufacturers, regulators and consumers to develop public health standards and certification programs that help protect the world’s food, water, consumer products and environment, in order to fulfill its mission to protect and improve global human health.

We spoke with Brittany Szczepanik, Senior Project Manager for NSF’s Environmental Services consulting program, to learn more about NSF and its role in leading today’s food companies to higher standards in both safety and sustainability.

How has the food industry traditionally approached sustainability issues? Are you seeing a shift?

Brittany Szczepanik: Although the food industry is increasingly incorporating sustainability into its regular business practices, it has traditionally acted in a voluntary manner, whereas food safety is a mandatory and/or regulatory obligation. However, sustainability topics are becoming more prevalent, often driven by consumers and investors, and we’re starting to see the food safety and sustainability spheres merge.

A great example of this is with organic and sustainable farming practices. Organic has been around for years — but it is gaining momentum with drivers such as Whole Foods’ influence on conventional grocery store adoption, greater interest and concern for what people put in their bodies, and the overall growing concern with environmental and social impacts of food production on the farm. Although there is no regulatory obligation to produce food organically, consumers are beginning to demand it, not only because of the environmental and social benefits, but also because organically grown foods contain fewer pesticides.

Why is viewing sustainability through the lens of food safety so important?

BS: Food safety and sustainability share common drivers — most prominently, attention from consumers and investors — and barriers, such as data management challenges in understanding and monitoring risks, gaps in traceability systems, and education and buy-in along the value chain. Furthermore, the challenges a company faces in either space are changing for many of the same reasons — climate change, evolving consumer and investor expectations, a dynamic regulator environment and increasing supply chain complexity.

The consequences of poorly managing either issue are costly and include damages to a company's reputation, as well as to consumer and investor confidence, supply risk, food fraud and food safety issues. Organizations that address these issues together will maximize their returns on investment in joint solutions.

The intersection of sustainability and food safety seems so obvious, so why is the concept just starting to gain momentum?

BS: As is common in any industry, concepts and business units have the tendency to be siloed based on subject-level expertise and company budgeting structures. Although the intersection between food safety and sustainability seems obvious, the persons responsible for each of these subjects in most companies are rarely talking to one another, much less working side by side. As key drivers increase sustainability initiatives in the food industry, these barriers are starting to break down, and collaborations are beginning to emerge internally as food safety and sustainability personnel are realizing their common ground. Elements common to food safety and sustainability are steadily emerging, from the forces driving increasing relevancy of both subjects, to the global changes altering the landscape that corporations must successfully navigate.

With NSF’s extensive experience in the food industry, what would you say are the most prominent/pressing sustainability challenges that can be addressed by tackling food safety issues?

BS: There are several prominent sustainability challenges that can be tackled in tandem with food safety issues, most of which can be boiled down to the importance of transparency and traceability. More specifically, the most pressing issues are risk reduction and monitoring, brand reputation, food fraud, supply instability and flexibility, meeting consumer demands and addressing climate change impacts.

The inherent complexity of these challenges is that they exist both within a company's own four walls and throughout its supply chain. Having full visibility into the inputs and outputs from each process — from farm to fork — is not an easy task, nor is it easy to identify risks and opportunities with food safety and sustainability in these areas.

What are some key ways companies can begin to identify potential risks along the supply chain, and then begin to mitigate those risks? And how does NSF fit into the picture?

BS: We assist companies to analyze the risk landscape, prioritize issues that are important to stakeholders and for the environment, and identify technically feasible solutions that are financially viable. Often, once risks are identified, these are incorporated into broader sustainability goals, so there is a mechanism for tracking, measuring and reporting on risk reduction progress.

Typically, NSF International's sustainability experts begin by scanning for potential risks through our proprietary risk-scanning tool, FIRST. It's the first step in being able to prioritize risks and uses a combination of location, company and commodity-specific data to provide an output of risk likelihood for 28 social and environmental risk indicators. FIRST enables an analysis of risk data by geography, supply chain stage, product and key risk indicators.

Once key indicators are identified from the scan, we then take a deeper dive into those potential risks to determine mitigation opportunities with a more focused lens, often through site visits, supplier questionnaires or using our wearable technology, EyeSucceed.

What would you say are the main obstacles companies currently face in terms of managing risk?

BS: Agriculture and food face dynamic global challenges. Climate change, population growth and shifts in dietary patterns, for example, can impact resource availability, biodiversity, political stability and human health. In a changing and resource-constrained environment, companies can struggle to find the resources or expertise to identify and manage risks.

The dynamic, complex and interconnected nature of modern supply chains presents visibility challenges for the entire value chain. Even if risk data is gathered, knowing how to analyze and assess the data to determine which areas are priority items is another obstacle. As the frontline in consumer demands for transparency, retailers are particularly pinched by these visibility and materiality challenges, despite being furthest away from the farm.

As the old adage goes, what gets measured gets managed. What metrics/methods are being used to measure impact, track progress and drive change? And how is this information used?

BS: For a lot of issue areas in sustainability, companies and their partners along the value chain progress by identifying an issue and looking at its current impact (creating a baseline); setting goals around its future performance; and then using tools like measurement, certification and science-based targets to track progress and drive change.

To manage this progression, companies need to deploy a diverse range of tools to quantify progress on sustainability issues in their supply chains, facilities and other areas – from establishing goals and policies, to using certification and other verification tools, to tracking specific metrics.

To further complicate things, different information is required from different suppliers and facilities, based on operation type, region, commodity and other factors. NSF helps with this in two main ways: first, by helping companies set goals for their performance and by understanding how to use this progressive view of compliance to initiate a program; and secondly, by leveraging TraQtion, a software platform we helped develop to provide a seamless, automated system to provide data trending and analytics capabilities, ensure the correct information gets to the right suppliers and facilities, enable document management and stakeholder communications, and empower companies to track sustainability, safety and quality information all in one place.


Launched in 2006, Sustainable Brands has become a global learning, collaboration, and commerce community of forward-thinking business and brand strategy, marketing, innovation and sustainability professionals who are leading the way to a better future. We recognize that brands today have… [Read more about Sustainable Brands]


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