How do you survive a global crisis and ensure business continuity at scale? This is the question our industry has been grappling with since the outbreak of COVID-19 in early 2020. Having weathered the storm – and gaining increased growth and security – we share the seven measures we utilized to build resilience.
A surge in the demand for fresh food in the midst of a health crisis was something few people saw coming. Yet, it did.
As the world grappled with the onset of COVID-19, food service businesses — with an estimated global value of US $3.4 trillion in 2018— had to (temporarily) pull their shutters down. Travel came to a standstill. And consumer buying behavior and patterns shifted. According to the BBC, online searches for ‘food delivery’ and ‘local food’ reached a record high in April of 2020. Suddenly and without much warning, there was a boom in fresh food shopping.
"During the first wave of the COVID-19 crisis in early 2020, we saw the global demand for IFCO RPCs increase by up to 30%," recalls Thomas Albrecht, IFCO Vice President Center Operations.
An impressive surge at any point, but particularly critical during a period of unprecedented disruption. As a result, every business was left scrambling, forced to adapt and eager to find ways to ensure continuity.
"Our commitment was towards providing an uninterrupted and safe service during these challenging times," says Albrecht.
When faced with this challenge, IFCO focused on 7 key measures – people, safety, digitalization, sustainability, waste reduction, communication, and trends – which helped us to secure 100% business continuity across operations.
"Farmers increasingly turned to IFCO during the crisis because we could guarantee delivery," Albrecht explains. "We made sure their fresh vegetables and fruit collected in the fields could be on the retailers’ shelves and in the homes of the consumers the following morning."
We discarded the idea of being risk-proof, and instead built resilient systems and processes fit for potential future disruptions.
“During the first wave of the COVID-19 crisis, we saw the global demand for IFCO RPCs increase by up to 30%”
There are no two ways about it; if business continuity is to be ensured – particularly in the midst of an unprecedented health crisis – protecting people is critical.
"The first thing we did was ensure that we were protecting the health of our people," says Jeffery Mitchell, IFCO Director, Global Food Safety. "The moment we found out that COVID-19 is an airborne disease, we introduced the appropriate strict safety measures. These include remote working, strict segregation of shifts, wearing of masks and social distancing. By doing so, we ensured that our service centers could continue operating,"
The approach was successful in securing the safety of everyone directly or indirectly involved. For example, we ensured our facilities adhered to strict safety regulations, and invited truck drivers, who were among the worst hit during the lockdowns, to utilize them. They could use the amenities, get refreshments, and take a break if needed. "We knew we had made the right call when truck drivers started asking their logistics providers to send them to IFCO premises," Mitchell says.
At the peak of the pandemic, people were diligently washing down and sanitizing their store-bought groceries at home. Fortunately, as the WHO has repeatedly confirmed, there is currently no evidence that COVID-19 can be contracted from food, including fresh fruit and vegetables. An opinion paper issued by the International Commission for Microbiological Specifications of Foods has also shown that there is no evidence that food or food packaging is a transmission route for COVID-19.
Nevertheless, applying sound sanitation and food hygiene practices ensured that any chances of contamination in the fresh grocery supply chain were significantly reduced.
"When it comes to food safety, we have always been ahead of the game," says Mitchell. "As our RPCs are reusable assets, sanitation is paramount. That’s why our validated wash process is effective on a broad range of pathogens or contaminants that could be a concern for the food industry."
This became particularly relevant during the pandemic, at which point additional measures were added. Mitchell explains, "Consistently doing targeted testing and swabbing of food packed in our RPCs with independent, real-time validation, helped us to build resilience into the fresh grocery supply chain."
The way it’s always been done is not enough. This crisis has proven that ensuring food supply chain safety, continuity, and flexibility cannot be done without taking a targeted approach to digitalization. Digital solutions are needed to ensure visibility and transparency, optimize processes and to allow for better quality management.
"Digitalization is a priority at IFCO and extends across ordering and invoicing procedures," explains Albrecht, adding that the development of digital processes has been part of IFCO’s approach long before the crisis.
This digital readiness contributed to the availability of digital tools at the peak of disruption. For example, our SmartGuardian™ technology which was able to deliver greater transparency, automation, and sanitation at a time when it was most needed.
Sustainability is increasingly having an impact on business growth and legacy. Consumer awareness and engagement on sustainable topics continues to grow. In fact, a recent Deloitte survey found that in the past 12 months, during the pandemic, 49% of consumers bought more seasonal products and 45% bought more locally produced goods, while a third claimed to have ceased purchasing from non-sustainable or non-ethical businesses.
In this context, a circular economy model presents the perfect opportunity to improve on environmental factors, such as the elimination of single-use packaging, while also constituting good business sense.
Even in the most difficult of circumstances during the COVID-19 pandemic, we continued to offer a secure supply of IFCO RPCs throughout. While suppliers of single-use plastic and one-way wooden crates occasionally struggled to source raw material for packaging, our services and RPCs continued to flow smoothly because of our circular economy model, the IFCO SmartCycle. As such, we were not only able to meet demand, but also to provide our customers with tangible economic benefits, while reducing carbon, water and packaging waste.
Throughout the pandemic, headline-grabbing images of rotting harvest have contrasted dramatically with people queuing for essential food and supplies. Concern for food loss and waste during the crisis sky-rocketed.
Several of our tactics were instrumental in allowing us to tackle food waste and raising the resilience of the food supply chain.
Firstly, the features of our IFCO RPCs, such as optimized ventilation and stackable design, worked to reduce damage during transport, minimizing food waste. This was boosted by stringent hygiene measures and the IFCO SmartCycle model, which supported efficiency and quality standards, overall.
In addition, we utilized our network to support communities, while simultaneously reducing food waste. "We are proud to be long-standing partners with food banks in all our locations," says Albrecht. "And to provide IFCO RPCs so that growers and retailers can donate fresh produce to food banks and charities."
It’s no secret that transparent and open communication is vital for business success. However, when it comes to putting the conceptual framework into practice, many stumble. "Throughout the pandemic, we regularly communicated the levels of capacity to our customers," confirms Albrecht. "That way, they were well-prepared to meet surges in demand." In our industry, we see transparent communication as essential to building and maintaining trust. It is then perhaps not surprising that a strong communication was among the measures we applied to ensure resilience. "Our customers fully appreciate our commitment to providing an uninterrupted and safe service during the most difficult of periods," says Albrecht.
Navigating a crisis and building resiliency is as much about looking inward, as it is about looking out. At IFCO, we monitor trends very closely. In our view, this pandemic will upend many ways of doing business. For one, we expect to see the shift towards local sourcing of fresh food, fruit and vegetables gain momentum. A development Albrecht believes will have a positive outcome for the environment. "We will see a reduction in our overall food footprint, as the average number of kilometers for transporting fresh fruit and vegetables will go down," he explains.
Most importantly, food safety will become more relevant than ever, as Mitchell points out. Consumer demand has already compelled industries as well as governments to take a hard look at – and rethink – their existing regulations and practices. "IFCO is ideally positioned to remain a pioneer in this area," states Mitchell.
The next crisis will be very different from this one. And while none of us know exactly how, business continuity in the food industry will require agility and flexibility, which will go hand-in-hand with rigorous hygiene and safety measures. Although the pandemic has been hugely disruptive, it has also provided an opportunity for us to reflect on the future of our industry. Building a resilient food supply chain that is highly adaptable remains key to surviving this crisis, and the next.
To discover more about food safety measures at IFCO during the COVID-19 pandemic and what the fresh grocery supply chain industry has learned, read this Interview with Jeffery Mitchell, IFCO Director, Global Food Safety..
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