From For-Loops to Food Tech: Silicon Valley & Food Safety

Food startups are a growing trend among entrepreneurial tech companies in Silicon Valley. Within the past few years we have seen products such as SoylentHampton Creek and Beyond Meat. These startups have managed to raise major funds from the likes of Bill Gates, Peter Thiel and Biz Stone. Amazon and others are jumping on the food bandwagon by offering grocery delivery services. The high tech industry has also given way to a sharing economy for foods. The fact is that the food industry as a whole is ripe for “disruption”, as they say.

And the food industry needs to be disrupted. It’s plagued with inefficiencies that technology can help improve. From better traceability and environmental concerns to regulatory compliance, the high tech and food industry are a perfect match. But as tech moguls move from making programs to making food, there are some areas where they could use the help and expertise of food industry veterans. Aside from making a great tasting, ecologically friendly product, these new entrants into the food ecosystem need to make sure the food their making is safe and wholesome.

What does this mean exactly? From a food safety perspective, they need to take a look at the risks involved in the food products they’re creating and how those risks are impacted by product formulation, distribution patterns and end user target market. When a hazard analysis is done for high risk foods, we look at how the product is made, where the raw ingredients come from, how the product is stored and distributed and how the product is intended to be prepared by the end user. Is it a ready-to-eat (RTE) product? Is it something intended to be cooked? Will the product be consumed by those with a weakened immune system (children, elderly, chronically ill)? These are some of questions asked by food safety professionals when designing a HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point) and Food Safety Plan.

The other issue is that food regulations can be extremely complex and are constantly changing. There are always new rules, laws, regulations and exceptions to those rules. Regulators and food industry professionals alike have difficulty keeping up with all the changes. This is because research and technology is always changing and influencing food policy. There are also over a dozen regulatory agencies charged with promulgating and enforcing food regulations.The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) is creating sweeping changes to all sectors of the food industry. It’s so complex in nature that it was signed into law by President Obama in 2011 and has yet to be fully implemented.

While I went browsing these food/tech startup sites I saw they are looking to hire people to manage their food safety and regulatory systems. This means overtime as the food industry continues to evolve, the tech and traditional food sector will continue to merge. It turn, the hope is both industries will be stronger, more environmentally friendly and efficient. While the food industry is looking to feed a growing population, the tech industry folks are adept at solving problems. Seems like a rich and synergistic combination to me. But it has to be done together and done the right way.

The “Internet of Things” has connected ordinary, standalone devices to the cloud so they can communicate. While digital recording and monitoring is not new to the food industry, cloud connectivity in food plants is less common. There is incredible value in being able to monitor times/temperatures and other critical values wirelessly. Not only is it essential to be in compliance, it also helps to have easy access to this type of data, in the event of a recall for example. This is just one example of how technology can be leveraged to make food safer.

I personally hope to see more collaboration and innovation between the traditional food and tech industries. Another piece of the equation is that education needs to evolve to better incorporate these two areas. As investors are putting money into these companies, they should also be investing in educational programs that merge the two fields. Think Big Data Scientist merged with a Food Scientist. It would be great to see schools offer this type of degree to better prepare students for the incredible changes ahead.