From Fragile to Agile: How To Keep Food Safe Amid a Supply Chain Crisis

Nov. 11, 2021
The coronavirus pandemic exposed many of our supply chain vulnerabilities. Here to talk about how to build more resiliency into the supply chain is Liz Sertl of GS1 US.

In today’s episode, we’re talking with Liz Sertl, Senior Director of Community Engagement at GS1 US. If you’re not familiar with GS1 US, you’re certainly familiar with their barcodes. With more than six billion scans a day, those barcodes are what helps keep product moving, and the supply chain efficient.

We talk a lot about efficiency versus resiliency in the supply chain and where food manufacturers got it right – and where they can still improve. We examine the growing importance of data and digital transformation while ending the episode talking about how GS1 US is helping food processors prepare for FMSA’s Proposed Rule 204, which comes out in November 2022.


Erin: Liz, Welcome to the Food For Thought Podcast. I want to really roll up my sleeves and dig in and let people get to know you a little better. Could you start off by introducing yourself and your role within the food and beverage industry?

Liz: Absolutely. My name is Liz Sertl. I'm Senior Director of Community Engagement at GS1 US. Before I dive into GS1 US, just a little bit of background. I've been in this CPG space for over 20 years. I've worked at two large beverage companies. One alcohol and one non-alcohol, and had kind of span both the packaging hands-on side in the warehouse, in manufacturing, and then moving to EDI, RFID, and master data. I understand how the importance of having reliable data within organizations enable a lot of internal success. Even though that can sound on the boring side, I've seen it first-hand.

Moving over to GS1 US, when I get in a room I'll ask people to, "Please raise your hand if you know who GS1, or GS1 US is," and I'll get one or two people. But each and every one of the listeners on podcasts have absolutely interacted with GS1 standards because it's the barcode. It's the barcode that allows the point of sales systems at grocery stores to go beep. GS1's standards are the most widely used supply chain standards in the world. That barcode is scanned more than six billion times a day globally. GS1 standards allow the supply chain to uniquely identify products and locations in the supply chain, to drive that visibility and efficiency that is so very important in what's going on today with all the supply chain and food safety conversations that are coming up.

Erin: Did I see that you also have a podcast that is specific to supply chain issues?

Liz: I do. Next Level Supply Chain is a podcast that I cohost with Reid Jackson, who is VP of Business Development here at GS1 US. We explore topics like supply chain resiliency, digital transformation, the e-commerce explosion, and then a lot of other fascinating topics, both standards and non-standard related. We've had a bunch of guests already, one that has just blowing my mind. It's a food industry professional kind of bonanza because the founders of this startup called Strella Biotech, they utilize sensors and analyze data to interpret the shelf-life and maturity of fruits by the actual gases that the fruit give off. So, the supply chain is just this wealth of information and Reid and I are really enjoying doing that podcast.

Erin: I really respect that. I have a similar feeling about the Food For Thought podcast, getting to talk to a lot of the different players in this space. Definitely get to meet a lot of great and interesting people and get to learn a lot more with each episode. 

Let’s switch gears for a minute. What would you say the state of the food and beverage supply chain was before COVID? And then what issues seemed most problematic?

Liz: I would say that the food and beverage supply chain was efficient, but it was not resilient. Pre-pandemic, I think people and organizations thought we have an efficient supply chain, and that's great. But what there wasn't was this real-time view of where a product has been and where it was going. This non-interoperability caused problems when the pandemic happened and it shifted, food shifted, the demand shifted. Restaurants closed, grocery stores became this hub of where you get food. Convenience stores became retail grocery stores. And because of the lack of conversation, and I'm talking not conversations with people, but conversations with systems, they didn't have it.

They weren't speaking that same language, and those people who know GS1 are rolling their eyes right now. We start talking about the importance of speaking that same language. And I think that the pandemic has been a motivator when it comes to these trading partners coming together to talk verbally, but also how can we become more efficient from a data and information perspective? I mean, there's been food recalls in the past. If I said romaine everybody would roll their eyes again. I think that as we go through the typical things that were happening, like, romaine, like, spinach, like meat, then you put a pandemic on top of it, people and organizations are starting to say, "What can we do differently? How can we label more efficiently so that everybody knows what is where and when within a product's lifespan?"

One of the things that we do within GS1 US is bring industry together to try to figure out what problems they're trying to solve. Well, right now it's very obvious, right? What problems are you trying to solve? How do we get our goods where we need them to be in an efficient way? Then our next conversation after that is how can we do that better with standards? And it's a really cool process to see the light bulbs go off and say, "Oh my gosh. If we only could get this to work and a standard that's already been created can do that, let's get moving down that road." It's not fast. All of these things are going to continue to happen, but how can we make it more efficient?

Erin: Once we were in the throes of quarantine and a pandemic, it definitely, most certainly seemed like a lot more e-commerce and direct-to-consumer product purchasing was taking place. What kind of disruption did that bring to the supply chain?

Liz: Oh my gosh. I think the biggest, right? So, we were all freaking out. We were home. We still needed our stuff, and when you do that kind of major shift in the supply chain, it really changes how organizations are going to meet that demand. I mean, the pandemic itself has moved forward many plans for digital transformation that organizations may have already had in order to accommodate this new way of working. Whether it's social distancing, whether it's this contact with payment. We all are now familiar with curbside. I don't know if I had heard about curbside, like, from a food perspective. Maybe, but it wasn't something that everybody was talking about. E-commerce, buy online, pick up in-store.

We all had been really familiar with it, but not because we had to or because we needed to do that to feel safe. And I think from the conversations that we had with members, they were struggling with the need to keep these shelves stocked and the workers safe. But also, how do we get the stuff that people are demanding and asking of us on the shelves at that same time? I think because we realized that curbside and pickup at store and home delivery conveniently all maybe have gotten a little bit to enjoy that. I know I have. Consumers are going to expect it. I think business is going to very much shift from brick and mortar to e-commerce to this hybrid, and it's going to be all hybrid, and everything is on your phone, too.

I'm in the grocery store looking at my phone. And I think we need to work with industry to make sure that we have the ability to do that, and that this convergence of digital and physical worlds is foremost in our thoughts. And what that means from our folks that we work with is, "Can we make sure that we're getting the right product to our customers?" Having the same product description in your master data system that is on an online site is super important because you don't want to order celery and then, like, get celery root. That would really make somebody unhappy. I think that the disruption was huge, I think that it's going to continue. And I think that there are ways to make things a little bit smoother as we move through the pandemic and all that it has done.

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Erin: In the last 18 months we've heard a lot of talk about the workforce and labor, logistics, transportation issues, but not a lot about food safety. It's almost as though it got lost in the shuffle. And lately we can't seem to go a day without hearing about a food being recalled, which speaks to those food safety issues. Why did food safety fall off the radar, and was that the fault of the supply chain problems?

Liz: I honestly don't think that food safety is a fault of the supply chain problems that are happening right now. I think that the food safety system has really gotten, actually, safer. I think that this is going to continue. The reason I say that is the FDA has been working with industry very closely and how to enable a very safe supply chain. In the conversations we had just last week with FDA— as they held an industry meeting—the focus was on e-commerce and how to ensure that things get to the end consumer in a safe fashion.

And a ton of organizations spoke, and they do have mechanisms in place for the safe food environment, but because of the pandemic, and because of the supply chain problems that you just mentioned, they're continually improving how they're doing this kind of work. Improved temperature controls to make frozen stay frozen, and not just relying on I'm feeling the meat to make sure it's cool, because that is not a good idea. How do you enhance packaging that's going to keep food safer and in the form that it's meant to be? I think food safety probably seemed to fall off the radar a little bit just because there was so many other things that people were talking about, but from where we are sit at GS1 US, there's always been this underlying current of how do we make the food systems safer? And we can continually partner with our members and with FDA to move that conversation forward.

Erin: It definitely seems, that the last year and a half, really exposed our supply chain vulnerabilities. Would you agree? And more to the point, how do we right this or get things back on track?

Liz: Oh, I would certainly agree that the supply chain is really fragile right now, and it needs to be more agile. I've never experienced more conversations where supply chain is the topic of conversation with lay people, like, with my friends and my kids. My kids are, like, "Mom, look there's supply chain is on the news. That's what you do." I mean, I never imagined that my kids were going to have this kind of knowledge of the supply chain. And it's because it is, it's vulnerable, it's fragile. And the consumer shifts are going to continue to happen as it filters out and we figure out what the new norm, or that new shopping experience is going to be. And we all need to be ready.

I think that the interoperability of the supply chain partner systems is really that key to the enhanced supply chain resilience. When there are spikes in consumer purchase activity, or their ships that are stuck in the ocean or in a canal, there are ways to shift...not lift and shift necessarily, but know where goods are and be able to then move them to where that spike is or where they need to be. If all the systems can communicate, seamlessly with each other from that data perspective, it's just easier to be able to react. If you know that things need to get from here to there, and you know where things, or products are, it just makes it that simpler and easier to react.

Erin: You were referring a little bit ago about the FDA, and I want to circle back to that because I know the FDA is working to address supply chain issues, especially if it relates to food safety. Can you talk a little more about that?

Liz: Absolutely. The FDA has several initiatives right now when it comes to food safety. The first that I'll touch on is the new era of smarter food safety. This really is a broad initiative of where the FDA would like to go in the next decade or so to make the supply chain, as a whole, from a food perspective, safe. It touches on technology, it touches on food safety, food handling. What we're working on and what my niche is, is how you can bring technology in play to create a safer supply chain for food. The second initiative that they are working on, and that everybody is kind of heads down thinking about is the new proposed FSMA Rule 204. And FSMA is Food Safety Modernization Act. This was the first FSMA rules were way back in, like, 2011 or so. They haven't been touched since then, and the FDA has a proposed rule that came out last year, and the final rule will come out in November of 2022.

One of the things folks are hesitant about is what's going to be in the rules when it's finalized? And while we can't see the future, we are trying to help members be proactive and get ready for what may be this rule that isn't changed from what it was supposed to have. Which means, I think it really needs to have an understanding of what's going on in their system from a critical tracking event and key data element perspective. And while that may sound daunting, and it is, if I put that in normal terms, it's really what's happening from a process perspective. Are you manufacturing a soda where you have an input of a can and liquid and an output of a can of 12-ounce soda, and then the data around that. Where is it happening? What is the line number? What is the location of the facility? Those are those key data elements.

We are working with organizations to try to streamline this so it's really not as daunting in November of 2022 happens, and we as an organization continue to collaborate with Frank Yiannis, who heads up that work to help support industry implementations of both new era and FSMA. It's daunting, it's so very important though, from a getting out in front of technology and let's try to solve industry food safety problems together, instead of doing it on our own. I think we're all stronger when we work together.

Erin: As we wrap up this episode, I'm wondering are there any best practices or recommendations you can give our audiences that might help as far as their supply chain woes are concerned?

Liz: I think one of the things that I try to even remind myself, but when I talk to folks, be patient, because there are kinks that are going to be worked out as we come out of this weird pandemic. And even if the pandemic never really goes away, how are we going to live here? Be vigilant and ensure organizations really understand internal processes. What do your manufacturing processes look like from a four-wall system? Then start layering in external. Where your raw materials come, and then where do your products go? Really map that well. Start putting standards toward that. Start really looking internally and saying, "Do I have good data quality?" And it's okay if you don't.

But then what can I do to make it better? And then we would always say from a GS1 US perspective, "Come talk to a group. Come hear what's already been done from an industry perspective. Don't try to recreate the wheel. There are so many ways that wheels should be created, this should not be one of them. Let's figure out how to make the supply chain more efficient and resilient. More importantly, so that as things are thrown at us, hopefully not to this degree again, that we can all work together, be safe, and get our customers what they need and when they need it."

Erin: Liz, it has been an absolute treat having you on the podcast today. I have learned so much, and I just wanted to thank you for taking the time to sit down with me today.

Liz: Thanks. It's been great, Erin, I really appreciate it.

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