The 10th edition of Food Chain (Middle East Cold Chain Food Safety Conference), on May 31 in Dubai, highlighted the possibility of enhancing food safety and food security through adopting digital solutions in every aspect of the food cold chain.
Endorsed by Dubai Municipality and chaired by Raja Subramanyam, Dubai-based independent cold chain consultant, the conference saw participation from government bodies, food establishments, refrigeration equipment manufacturers and suppliers, digital solutions providers and senior consultants plying their specialised expertise in cold chain.
His Excellency Eng. Saif Mohamed AlShara, Assistant Undersecretary, Sustainable Communities Sector; Acting Assistant Undersecretary, Food Diversity Sector, UAE Ministry of Climate Change & Environment, delivered the Keynote Address. Characterising the conference as a “crucial event that comes at a time when the international community is doubling its efforts in light of COVID-19 to ensure food security and sustainability, boost the flexibility and continuity of food supply chains, and improve food safety”, he said that enhancing food security, safety and sustainability is a strategic priority of the UAE.
AlShara said that for decades, the federal and local government authorities concerned have worked relentlessly to achieve the highest level of food safety to help safeguard public health, consolidate the country’s position as a pioneering international hub for food trade, and boost consumer confidence through an integrated approach that primarily includes devising policies, legislation and systems that guarantee the supply and trade of safe and reliable food products; developing food inspection and monitoring systems; educating consumers about the importance of food safety; encouraging local entities working in agricultural production and food industries to upgrade the safety and quality of their products; and facilitating free trade in food commodities and raw materials – export, import and marketing – in line with applicable food safety regulations.
AlShara said that in order to streamline international food trade and diversify food import sources, the Ministry has rolled out multiple initiatives, including implementing a system for controlling and inspecting traded food and its establishments; promoting entrepreneurship in the import and re-export of agricultural products; adopting joint health protocols with countries that import food products to the UAE; establishing livestock quarantine facilities in exporting countries, in compliance with the standards and regulations set by the Ministry; and collaborating with internationally accredited laboratories to ensure the safety of inbound consignments.
AlShara said that the Ministry created the National Food Safety Committee, as part of its efforts to develop relevant work processes on the federal level. He said that it comprises representatives of the Ministry, strategic partners from the government and the United Arab Emirates University.
The committee, he said, is responsible for devising unified nationwide food control and inspection regulations; assessing and managing risks related to imported foodstuffs and raw materials used in agricultural production and food industries; detecting foodborne diseases and food poisoning; and reporting, tracking and recalling food products that are hazardous to public health.
The committee, he added, is developing an initiative to manage and tighten the controls on pesticide residue in food. AlShara said the Ministry has also formed specialised committees, such as the National Committee for Meat Safety, and a committee to review and regulate control processes for inbound food consignments.
He said the Ministry’s approach to control local food trade is in parallel with its measures to ensure the safety of imported foods, including monitoring the status of public and animal health around the world; joining the International Food Safety Authorities Network (INFOSAN), the EU Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (EU-RASFF) and the Gulf Rapid Alert System for Food (GRASF); and imposing control measures in countries of origin through accrediting their slaughterhouses seeking to export meat products to the UAE. In addition, he said, local food control authorities inspect food imports upon arrival at the country’s borders through verifying the documents accompanying inbound consignments, and conducting the necessary physical and laboratory tests on samples from the shipments.
AlShara said the COVID-19 outbreak and its negative impact on the continuity and flexibility of international food supply chains have raised widespread concerns in many countries that rely on imports to meet a considerable part of their food needs.
To address this issue, he said, the UAE took a prudent and swift approach to ensuring the availability of sufficient quantities of food in the local market. As part of its post-pandemic strategy, he said, the UAE’s wise leadership views food security and sustainability as a priority in building a better future for the current and next generations.
In line with the government’s directives, he said, the Ministry of Climate Change and Environment, in collaboration with its partners, has stepped up its efforts to boost food security and safety as well as the flexibility and continuity of supply chains through three main tracks. The first, he said, is increasing local production – an objective that has gained special importance.
To achieve this goal, he said, the Ministry has upgraded the extension and inspection services and technical support it offers to farmers and food producers, created new sales channels for local products in the country, and initiated partnerships with the private sector to invest in agricultural enterprises and provide them with financing facilities. Notably, in the first half of 2020, banks extended financing worth AED 768 million to the agricultural sector, taking the total amount that the sector received up to July 2020 to AED 1.82 billion.
The second track involves building synergies with exporting countries and streamlining the flow of goods through border crossings through enhancing the capabilities of food testing labs at entry points, expediting inbound food consignment clearance and sample laboratory testing, as well as partnering with exporting countries to conduct tests required by the Ministry at the point of origin, he said.
The third track, he said, is about raising awareness about food safety. In collaboration with local food control authorities, the Ministry runs public awareness programmes, and issues alerts and guidelines for handling foodstuff to workers in the field as well as to consumers, he said.
Bobby Krishna, Senior Specialist, Food Permits and Applied Nutrition Section, Food Safety Department, Dubai Municipality, gave the Plenary Address of the conference. Speaking on the topic, ‘Lessons learnt from COVID-19 pandemic’, he said the Municipality was able to increase shelf life of food products. “Monitoring was easier, because we had the digital tools much before the pandemic,” he said, highlighting the usefulness of a digital regime. “We had these, pre-COVID. We had online delivery tools, and so digitalisation was already present.”
He said the Municipality trained 10,000 people during the pandemic and that it was continuous in nature. “We also switched to a remote inspection programme,” he said. Later, in the Plenary Discussion that followed, Eng. Abdulla A Al Tamimi, Director of Public Health, Ajman Municipality, echoed Krishna’s words on governmental foray into digitalisation, when he spoke of how the Municipality, collaborating with the Ajman Transport Authority, has introduced an IoT-based system, which enhances the food inspection process.
Krishna, co-panelist, warming to Al Tamimi’s words said, the digital process is happening right now in vehicle inspection. “Integration amongst different emirates [is the next step],” he said. “We are sharing information, and soon systems will start talking to one another.
It is the human part that drives the data. If you don’t have vision to collaborate, then it is of no use, but here [in the UAE], we have the vision to collaborate.” Speaking broadly on Ajman Municipality’s work, Al Tamimi, said Ajman is monitoring and controlling the food safety process in a uniform manner. “I want to make sure my team is working in a consistent manner,” he said. “We make sure all inspectors will take similar action, regardless of the size of the food outlet. The private sector is not sure of the outcome of an inspection drive.
They wonder why one inspector gives a different report from another inspector. Digitalisation will help harmonise this.” Speaking further on Dubai’s foray into digitalisation – into IoT, in particular – Krishna said it is possible to deploy IoT and sensors through the length and breadth of the city but that it would need investment.
True digitalisation has started and you have less human intervention,” he said, “For now, the back-end is integrated.” Speaking of the front-end during the Plenary Discussion, Ringaile Bulatovic-Schumer, Director of Culture Development, TSI Quality Services, highlighted the importance of considering the aspect of culture, which she said is different for different people.
When it comes to food safety culture, it is important to know how people are acting, she said. “It is one thing to have a fantastic system in place, but how do you know what is happening behind?” she said. “It’s a huge topic now in food.” Culture, she said is not nebulous – it is hard data. “We measure culture, and we want to think it has KPIs, as something we can improve on,” she said.
Weighing in on the subject of data, Prabhu Ramachandran, CEO, Facilio, which facilitates digital intervention in the operation of maintenance of real estate assets, said it is possible to automate and acquire real-time, data-driven insights. “We have technology available that is seamless and non-intrusive in nature,” he said. “We can collect data from elevator systems and refrigeration systems using standard protocols.” He said even systems 15 years old can export data in some way, adding that the situation is ripe for connectivity. “We have connected 400+ properties across the globe,” he said. “Most of them were connected during the pandemic. If customers are willing, we can connect.”
Later, in a panel discussion on transport refrigeration, moderated by Brent Melvin, CEO, Gallega Global Logistics, one of the panellists, Fabian Bahlmann, Managing Director, Schmitz Cargobull Middle East, pulled the digitalisation thread initiated by Al Tamimi and Krishna, when he spoke of ‘Smart trailers’ that Schmitz has introduced in the marketplace. “We use digital transportation,” he said. “We have rolled out remote service of trailers and ways by which people could be trained through video conferencing. Nobody today has a fleet that runs uncontrolled.
We have integrated apps, and fleet owners can decide to which level they want telematics-based solutions.” Joining in, Phillip Khoury, Director of freight forwarding company, ADSO, spoke of how existing transport refrigeration technology allows customers to take control in real time.
The facility monitors door openings and pilferage. “Today,” he said, “the customer sits right next to the driver in real time, and there is transparency.” Khoury said that problems do occur, including loading delays and also delays at customs. He said his company depends on fluidity of solutions and that it has had technology customised to its needs.
The technology, he said, reveals the profile of the driver, the areas he goes to, and the problems he has encountered along the route. Nabeel Chaudry, CEO of trucking and transportation services provider, Al-Safa Transport, spoke of a need for standards and said he is able to see improvement on that front. “I see a lot of improvement is happening,” he said. “We have 24×7, 365-day alerts, be it Fridays or on holidays.
The UAE is very forward-thinking, with innovations in many fields. We are not lacking in terms of technology, but yes, we are faced with fragmented players and freelancers.” Besides digitalisation, the panellists spoke on the implications of ageing fleets. When asked about regulation relating to registered trucks and age of fleets, Khoury described the situation as, “Born in Europe, raised in the Middle East and death in Africa.”
Having said that, he spoke of companies choosing to regulate themselves internally. “Fabian demonstrated in his presentation that if we don’t change equipment, the trailer can be preserved, but not for too long, and so it is in the best interests to write these assets off at the end of five years,” he said.
Khoury and Chaudry said that ADSO and Al-Safa have standards but can’t compete with the situation, where cost alone is the factor. Khoury spoke of the need for more regulation of insurance. “Our insurance policy does not insure a truck beyond 15 years,” he said of ADSO. “And in the case of some refrigeration equipment, it is 10 years.”
In peak temperature, 49 degrees C, if you lose 10-15 minutes of ventilation, 100,000 chicken could die. Dr Suheel Ahmed, CEO, Arabian Farms
We have 1.9 million chicken. They are your livestock, your bread and butter. In the poultry business, 2-4% is normal death rate, which in Middle East temperature is higher. Birds are stressed [from the heat], leading to disease outbreak. It is not just dying but also losing productivity. They won’t lay eggs very well, but if in healthy form they can produce. Dr Suheel Ahmed, CEO, Arabian Farms
There is savings potential for predictive maintenance. Recall is tremendously expensive. Richard Sprenger, Chairman, Highfield ABC MEA
The conference brought together top executives from supermarkets in the region face to face with technology solutions providers for a panel discussion, moderated by Raja Subramanyam, independent cold chain consultant. Participants included Piyush Chohwan, Chief Information Officer, Lulu Group International; Matteo Dipentina, General Manager, Epta Middle East; Mark Lack, CEO, Geant (Urban Foods); Bijoy Anand Raghavan, CEO, Ramla Group; and Prabhu Ramachandran, CEO, Facilio. Excerpts from the discussion…
Piyush Chohwan: We are trying to adopt change. We have a lot of digital engagement. Obviously, a lot of investment has gone into customer data platforms.
Bijoy Anand Raghavan: For Ramla, retail is one of the major activities. We have moved to digitally controlled, centralised monitoring systems. They help reduce energy consumption, where 50-60% of energy expenditure is refrigeration-related. Going forward, we will be using Artificial Intelligence.
Raja Subramanyam: Retailers are doing a lot on the front-end, in terms of monitoring. Would you say that digitalisation reaching to predictive maintenance is still a journey you are taking?
Matteo Dipentina: As a supplier, it is not just preventive maintenance. We want to know where you can invest your money. Whether you are wasting money on consumption. We need to go through data and come up with the next step.
Prabhu Ramachandran: We are a software vendor. If we look at the retail sector, there is a lot of development that is already happening, but how do we move customers from site-level operations to hundreds of stores? We need customer comfort operations across all the stores in real time data and insight access, so they can optimise resources. Food retail industry is getting more business, and there is opportunity to optimise the business, to opt for real time optimisation of retail businesses. Real time optimisation across the hundreds of stores is about asking, ‘What can they do manually?’ ‘What can they do digitally?’
Subramanyam: Why has digitalisation not started in the retail back-end? You are doing a lot on the front-end. Why are investors not there to digitalise the cold chain? It cannot be the investment size. Is it complicated? Is it about skill level?
Chohwan: It is transition. The transition is slow in this phase. The reason is that the equipment already installed have long life, and the idea is to get maximum value [out of them]. The customer is changing the fundamentals at a fast pace. The equipment is significantly energy efficient, but the scope is still huge to make it even more energy efficient. As and when things move out, we are absolutely looking at new equipment and digitalisation.
Lack: The question is, ‘How many times do I need to sell to recover the investment?’ It is upfront cost for me.
Dipentina: We are not talking about years. The issue is not money. We are not changing the refrigeration equipment; we are only incorporating digital.
Raghavan: I feel there is slowness in back-end assets. One reason, as Piyush mentioned, is long life of the equipment. Also, if you get trapped in the digital world, you will end up paying AMCs with the manufacturer. And if [you have] 50 brands [of equipment], how are you going to control all of them with digital? Would there be a central point, a standard format? All manufacturers should give a standard platform.
Ramachandran: How can I manage 50 different vendors? There are ways to do this – there are decent number of protocols, where the external software can talk to existing units – without tampering with the warranty. We have connected 400+ buildings across the globe, and 70-80% have been connected in 2020, which demonstrates that this can be done across hundreds of locations. More and more vendors are moving to this approach.
Chohwan: You need to innovate the commercial models around this. Epta and other equipment manufacturers, they install, and management is taken away by service providers. Monitoring algorithm layers, if you put, it is still expensive.
Dipentina: We are working on a leasing-based model, where there is a contract with the end-user. We provide that to you, and you can move it around to your stores. We are doing this in Europe. You need to go out of your existing refrigeration model.
Ramachandran: From a software perspective, it is easy, but from an equipment manufacturer’s point of view, it is challenging. In our case, O&M is the way forward. Subramanyam: Mr Piyush, what would you expect from system integration and manufacturers?
Chohwan: One thing we need understanding of is maybe futuristic – checkout-free stores. In the next 4-5 years, we will see 20- 30% of all stores will be like this. In that context, equipment manufacturers need to work along this – a lot of equipment needs to be built, and digital needs have to be seamlessly integrated, and we build a store in a few weeks. This place is booming, and I hope everyone gets online.
Subramanyam: Mark, what do you want from Matteo?
Raghavan: There is not enough pressure from end-users to innovate. As far as refrigeration part is concerned, they continue to install the same product. Only every price is going up. And they are focusing on that.
Subramanyam: Assuming a store is about 20-25 years old, and they innovated the store only five years ago, which means you have data only available for five years. Is that enough?
Ramachandran: If I know every use patterns, store-wise, even before we look at past data, there is so much we can do. And then, we can look at historical data. What are the values? We are talking only of real time data, though, not data from the past. The reality is such – customers are constantly in fire-fighting mode.
Subramanyam: Matteo, how can you help in spearheading digitalisation in a faster manner?
Dipentina: We can make the most beautiful monitoring system, but the customer will say, ‘We don’t need it.’ We don’t want to take the job and maintenance of stores. The need is to save money now, not after 2-3 years. Lack: Show me the money, show me real-time examples.
Chohwan: Disrupt the model. Everybody should work towards disrupting themselves.