Food Safety & Collaboration

While open innovation has been adopted slowly here in the U.S., companies like General Mills (see Food Manufacturing, June 2012, p. 34) are beginning to publicize their own successes with open innovation.

This column originally ran in the June 2013 issue of Food Manufacturing.

Last month I had the pleasure to hear Will Daniels speak. Daniels is the Senior Vice President of Operations at Earthbound Farms, and he spoke to a group of food safety professionals about revolutionizing the way government, industry and academia work together to achieve food safety goals.

Now, Earthbound Farms may not spring to mind immediately when you think “food safety,” and Daniels knows it. The recall of Earthbound’s organic bagged spinach dominated the news cycle during the autumn of 2006; I can remember exactly where I was in my life as the story broke and continued to unfold, as I’m sure many of you can as well. For those who cared about food safety, the recall — and the illness and death associated with it — was big news.

While Daniels sidestepped much (if not all) of the blame for the recall — I’m sure legal considerations keep him from implicating the company in any wrongdoing, especially since, as he says, FDA and FBI investigators found no evidence of such — he does cop to a need for improved industry best practices surrounding food safety. And Daniels is willing to put his money where his mouth is.

Daniels has pledged to invite competitors come view the Earthbound Farms’ vegetable packing facility, where he says his company has developed an automated, in-line sanitation system that vastly improves food safety. And he’s willing to open his doors because, as Daniels said over and over, “food safety is not a competitive advantage.”

This sentiment might best illustrate Daniels’ backlash against what he identifies as the biggest obstacle to a functional food safety system in the U.S.: money. Regulators, he says, need to look “tough” regardless of the overall level of effective service they provide in order to maintain funding levels; universities research whatever seems sexiest because they’re chasing grant money; and food manufacturers cut corners to boost profits.

But food safety is not a competitive advantage.

Daniels’ focus on government, industry and academia reminds me of a trip I took to the Netherlands last October. While there, I visited with professionals across many sectors of the Dutch food and agriculture industries, and one aspect of the Dutch food and agribusiness industries that came to the surface time and again was the “triple helix” (or golden triangle, if you prefer).

As part of a broader business development program, the Dutch have designated several high value industries — food and agribusiness being one — and have allocated resources to court and support businesses in those sectors. The support is where the triple helix comes in: the Dutch government funds research and facilitates open innovation in the food sector; universities, such as Wageningen University, which is deeply involved in food industry research, perform research in consultation with industry actors; and industry communicates their needs to government and research institutions while working collaboratively to achieve goals. A clear example of what can be achieved through this kind of collaboration is the introduction of pulsified electric field (PEF) technology to extend shelf-life in juice processing (see p. 26 of this issue).

Open innovation here is the key — it’s not in the public interest to fund research into proprietary processes to give one company advantages over others, so if government funding and public research are involved, the innovation must be used for the greater good, economic or otherwise.

While open innovation has been much more slowly adopted here in the U.S., companies like General Mills (see Food Manufacturing, June 2012, p. 34) are beginning to publicize their own successes with open innovation. As this trend grows and more manufacturers embrace the idea that secrecy is not always a competitive advantage, food safety will surely be one of the first areas to see rapid expansion of open innovation.

Whether or not the U.S. will ever create its own golden triangle, collaboration is the first step down the path toward a safer food supply. When consumers get sick, no one wins. So open innovation leaders like Earthbound Farms and General Mills — leaders who know when to compete and when to collaborate — must lead the industry toward a safer future.