Maintaining food manufacturing resilience in a time of uncertainty

Asia faces a number of long-term challenges in the food and beverages ecosystem. The COVID-19 crisis serves as a timely reminder of fundamental value of supply chains and what its resilience means not only for business survival but supply security for the wider community. According to PwC, the food value chain contributes to around 17% of Southeast Asia’s total GDP, whereas the share of employment is even higher, with the industry accounting for close to 116 million jobs in the region, or 35% of the total labour force.

Labour shortages, in particular, is a regional issue that has faced further stress due to the spread of the virus across Asia. As many areas of the supply chain are highly dependent on labour, the national restrictions that people have felt on the movement and gatherings of people have therefore significantly impacted businesses’ ability to sustain their operations.

Providentially, Singapore and Malaysia have agreed to allow cross-border travel for business and work purposes. With the establishment of a Reciprocal Green Lane, food and beverage manufacturers have to remain resilient and safe from the risks of the pandemic.

Lessons from China
As China emerges from the pandemic, food and beverage manufacturers worldwide can learn from the country’s recovery efforts. For H1 the first half of this year, visitors are not allowed to enter a plant or an office, air conditioning has been shut down, and workers must adhere to strategic seating plans for all areas of the workplace, including canteen or break room – but things have since changed for the better.

Fast forward to today, China seems to have gone back to business as usual. Visitors are allowed to visit the country, but measures are still being put in place, including rigorous temperature scanning, hand sanitising and registration processes. Air conditioning is also allowed, but with increased disinfection and ventilation, with a few precautionary measures still in place, such as keeping personal hygiene, managing employee health and implementing travel restrictions. Equipment intelligence and an information-based approach have become the key for the food and beverage industry to cope with risks and challenges brought upon by the pandemic.

People first
It is critical for business leaders to ensure and safeguard the safety of their people first. Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA), employers are mandated to provide a safe working environment for their workers, something that has never been more important today. Increased focus in people management, such as specialised education and training about how workers can reduce the spread of the virus, takes absolute priority especially when the world is still learning about the developments and risks of the virus.

The shift in focus to people management can be divided into two – employee and visitor management. Employee management refers to ensuring each worker has a fixed workstation to avoid cross site moving and crowding. In addition, workers such as security guards and cleaning and sanitisation teams would be considered having high exposure, so extra precaution for this group of workers must be taken into effect.

Managing visitors, who most likely visit only once or twice, should be encouraged to use disposable forks or plates when eating. They would also need to submit documents such as travel history and contact details. At this stage, technology comes into play. QR code entry systems, for instance, is a way people have digitised and adapted to the new normal. In Singapore, SafeEntry supports businesses with logging the entry and exit of each and every visitor. It also gives visitors some peace of mind, and helps authorities with their contact tracing efforts.

Digital way forward
There has also been a demand for visibility around product sourcing and safety. New technologies, such as blockchain, have been applied in supply chain processes for food traceability. With consumers keenly aware of the importance of strict hygiene and food safety, adoption of such technologies is critical in allowing better transparency on product sourcing and manufacturing.

In China, for instance, demands for facial recognition systems have gone over the roof. Workers simply show their face so a device can scan and ensure they are authorised to enter. It then reads their temperature to see if they are higher than normal levels. These are prevention efforts so workers are relieved of manual entering and exiting.

Ecolab supports the use of digital technologies to address these problems. Now more than ever, customers want to be ensured that food safety standards are met consistently. As such, the company ensures that its sales and service team are able to provide service remotely, even with limited access. For example, with Ecolab’s 3D TRASAR CIP, critical issues in its customers’ facilities can be addressed with digital monitoring technology. Recognising that food safety issues can happen any time of day or night, Ecolab has focused more on its remote services and support to provide immediate insight and action when needed.

Isaac Teh is vice-president and general manager, food and beverage, Ecolab SEA.