A year ago, I set out my vision for the modernisation of our company, a medium-sized Belgian chocolate factory, in a paper published in the “Food & Beverage Technology review.” In the meantime, the COVID pandemic has been in place for almost a year and continues to significantly influence the way we work.
Even though COVID has temporarily put many projects on hold, there are still motives for satisfaction.
Food industries have been clearly identified as key players in supplying society. While many industries were forced to close, the food industries remained open and continued to provide food for the entire population. I am sure it is clearly a source of motivation for all of us.
Another reason for satisfaction is that our FSSC 22000 system enabled us to adapt almost immediately to the constraints of the pandemic. Certain measures were reinforced to ensure social distancing (Plexiglass separation, reorganisation of planning, wearing of masks in all work areas, etc.), but the adaptations were minor and implemented without too many difficulties.
In addition, during the first three months of the pandemic, we activated our crisis management and business continuity procedures. This was an opportunity to test them in the context of teleworking. As a feedback, we were able to identify information bottlenecks or better identify key functions for business continuity.
The impact of the pandemic was of course, not limited to these aspects. It was a real stress-test for our supply chain, and the supply chain proved its essential character, its role as the backbone of the company.
Most of our strategic suppliers are based in Belgium. This local anchoring has allowed us to avoid fundamental problems with the supply of our raw materials. It has become anecdotal, but the greatest supply difficulties have been with hydroalcoholic gels and masks, with usual suppliers on the verge of collapse at the beginning of the crisis.
An integrated transformation of the company is necessary. All services need to change. We spoke earlier about teleworking, about remote audits. We must transform ourselves to integrate this new dematerialised reality
If we do not have supply problems, the additional rules of social distancing disrupt our planning (we cannot, for example, put adjacent production lines into operation). The planner naturally becomes a key person in the process of limiting shortages in our range.
Our sales are made almost exclusively through retail shops and not through mass distribution. In some large markets, even though food shops could remain open because of their essential character, their location in shopping streets or in malls where all other shops were closed meant that in practice their activity was reduced or even totally stopped. This forced us to be more flexible, more agile. We stopped our production at certain times, closed some shops to others. The agility of the teams and efficient planning tools (ERP) are the two main assets here.
The pandemic also showed the importance of e-business and we saw that we had a lot of work to integrate it into our supply chain.
With teleworking, we have been able to experiment with remote audits and their limitations. If the pandemic continues, it would be interesting for the certification bodies to look more closely at this way of proceeding and to formalise things. Professional federations could act as a relay for collecting feedback from companies. The aim is to guarantee the same level of confidence, trust in this digital context as in the face-to-face situation.
Early October, Dr. M. Ryan, Executive Director, WHO Health Emergencies Programme, said, “We cannot, cannot, cannot let the world forget because the next one may not be anything but the worst one” and also “This (COVID-19) may just be a harbinger of what may come…” (October 1st, 2020).
Despite the hope of vaccination, we must prepare our industries for the next crisis.
Where should we concentrate our resources?
The supply chain must continue to receive our full attention. It must be strengthened and, above all, integrated into a real digital strategy.
This digital strategy is a priority in the face of this uncertain future that is being announced. For our industries, as for all others, digital strategy is not limited to e-business. An integrated transformation of the company is necessary. All services need to change. We spoke earlier about teleworking, about remote audits. We must transform ourselves to integrate this new dematerialised reality.
Hygiene and GMP training is an inherent part of food safety management systems. We need to take advantage of this crisis to strengthen them and make them even more interactive and participatory. Our staff has shown its commitment; we must keep this dynamic alive.
We have been lucky that the transmission of the virus does not involve the food chain and food, but what about the next one?
What will also happen with a more transmissible, more virulent virus?
We have a responsibility to provide food to all, whatever the events or crises. How can we continue to do this in a situation far more serious than COVID? We need to think about investments with this assumption in mind. Think about further automation, key functions, new detection methods, etc.
The crisis is not over, but and we will have to continue to be agile while learning to exploit opportunities for improvement.