Food Safety is in an unusual position within the Food industry: It is absolutely crucial to the success of any business, but it is not a profit center or a competitive advantage; it has all the same opportunities to modernize its people, processes, and technologies as other parts of the business, but there is a deep-seated conservatism in trying something new unless someone else has already demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt that it will produce an obvious ROI. Keep in mind, while Safety and Quality make the business possible, very rarely are they directly connected to the bottom line, so demonstrating ROI is not an easy thing to do. What can senior leaders working in this space do to secure what they need to develop their teams and their organizations?

Let’s use one emerging technology to discuss the broader issue as a whole. Just about everyone working in Food Safety today agrees Whole Genome Sequencing (WGS) will transform the way the industry deals with foodborne pathogens, but no one agrees when it will replace conventional methods. WGS is new in an industry that prefers its tools tried, tested, and true. While the broad strokes of WGS sound excellent, the finer details are still little understood by professionals responsible for public safety who view big promises with understandable suspicion. Perhaps most importantly, WGS requires a lot of upfront time and money, two things Food Safety leaders are always careful about how they spend.

Food Safety executives who want to add WGS to their toolkits now have powerful arguments:

  • There are now many detailed case studies from early adaptors in Europe and North America proving the technology works.
  • While bringing anything new online does require an investment, it can also be shown to replace something that costs more to operate, takes longer to achieve results, and is less reliable. The WGS case studies had an upfront cost of between $91,400 and $3.9 million USD, but they replaced conventional laboratory methods that ended up costing between 1.2 and 4.3 times as much to run while producing less information more slowly and with more opportunities for bad test results.
  • WGS can also be connected to improving safety processes and risk models. Where before samples were done on products, now they can be done environmentally. Where before each bacterial outbreak was treated as its own episode, WGS shows how foodborne pathogens diversify over time, linking strains that would have been considered unrelated before and giving experts new tools to both seek out root causes and track pathogens through the value chain.
  • WGS puts a lot of reliable information in the hands of decision-makers quickly, often fast enough to prevent what the current industry standard would only be able to review after the fact. Five different labs conducting Salmonella surveillance calculated that it would only take a modest percentage of reported salmonellosis cases to be avoided each year to pass the break-even point where WGS is cost neutral.

So what can we take from this specific example that would apply to any kind of business case for investment in further Food Safety capabilities?

  • Find good examples to benchmark against
  • Identify the quantitative and qualitative differences between the before and after that demonstrate improvement
  • Build these improvements into your existing models and see what they allow you r organization to do that it could not do before
  • Do those new capabilities translate into better outcomes for the business of greater value than the resources involved in developing them? That is the Return on Investment for your business case, even if it does require some context and explanation to find it.

Geoff Micks
Head of Content & Research
Executive Platforms

Geoff joined the industry events business as a conference producer in 2010 after four years working in print media. He has researched, planned, organized, run, and contributed to more than a hundred events across North America and Europe for senior leaders, with special emphasis on the energy, mining, manufacturing, maintenance, supply chain, human resources, pharmaceutical, food and beverage, finance, and sustainability sectors. As part of his role as Head of Content & Research, Geoff hosts Executive Platforms’ bluEPrint Podcast series as well as a weekly blog focusing on issues relevant to Executive Platforms’ network of business leaders.

Geoff is the author of five works of historical fiction: Inca, Zulu, Beginning, Middle, and End. The New York Times and National Public Radio have interviewed him about his writing, and he wrote and narrated an animated short for Vice Media that appeared on HBO. He has a BA Honours with High Distinction from the University of Toronto specializing Journalism with a Double Minor in History and Classical Studies, as well as Diploma in Journalism from Centennial College.