Focus on Food Safety: The small business conundrum
Small food businesses are having a surge of public support during the pandemic. There’s so much to love about local businesses, from local supply chains and employment development to unique flavours reflecting tastes of place. However, those of us in food safety see a myriad of challenges.
Pivoting into a regulated space
Many small businesses are working in regulated environments. For example, restaurants have to comply with municipal public health regulations. During COVID-19 shutdowns, many of these establishments pivoted toward packaged goods, which have a different risk profile than ready-to-consume foods. Ghost kitchens and rental kitchens grew exponentially, thereby creating opportunities for entrepreneurs to get into packaged goods manufacture.
By coupling the boom in packaged goods with e-commerce platforms, restaurant-based food service establishments began selling products beyond the borders of their municipalities. While popular products garnered the interest of major retailers, they were not ready to scale with Safe Food for Canadians Preventive Control Programs or other HACCP-based and audited food safety programming. Restaurant business was not prepared for labelling, traceability and risk-based preventive controls. The risk when consuming a popular soup or a sauce immediately is drastically different from consuming from a jar or package at a later time. These ghost kitchens and incubator systems must find a way to transition SFCR risk-based preventive control systems in a scalable and cost-effective manner.
Permission for home food business
As many people have been laid off, especially from food service, several pivoted toward creating food products at home for hyper-local sales. In some provinces, such as Ontario, rules allow for preparation of food products within the home, but with risk-based criteria.
Home-based businesses are supposed to be regulated, but most are flying below the radar, forcing inspectors to become innovative, such as looking for postings of food products on social media platforms.
It’s challenging. Economically, we want to encourage entrepreneurship and economic activity, especially for women, recent immigrants and the unemployed, but most home kitchens are not prepared for minimizing allergen and microbial cross-contamination and traffic patterns. Few people can segregate their home kitchens from pets and family life.
Home food industries are intended to be low-risk products, such as low moisture baked goods, candy and popcorn, but, in reality, many are encroaching on high-risk products. Allergen cross-contamination is likely to be poorly managed, and temperature control and monitoring are questionable. Innovations such as video inspection could allow for better oversight. Requiring food handlers’ certification and submission of recipes to inspection would be easy checkpoints for managing food safety.
Over regulated small businesses
Conversely, while some businesses are escaping regulatory oversight, others are being over-regulated relative to their risk level. Safe Food for Canadians Regulation is intended to provide frameworks for risk-based activity, but is being overshadowed by multi-level inspection. Small business is often caught between the various levels of inspection (municipal, provincial, and federal), causing conflicts between inspection services, extended confusion, and loss of business for the establishment.
Access to knowledge resources
It’s been challenging for small business to access knowledge resources. Canadian inspection services are reluctant to counsel establishments. While online resources are available, expert guidance is missing. Food Processing Skills Canada has been active in developing learning tools for small business, but more resources are needed.
Importance of peer communities
In food safety and quality methodology, the Quality Circle model is critical. Ishikawa’s Quality Circle uses a team-based approach, where members of the quality and food safety team gather on a routine basis to promote best practices. In large firms, an expert is usually a part of this circle because the scale of the company covers the costs of this expertise. Small companies lack in-house experts or the cash flow to hire consultants.
Government-funded food safety extension services are commonplace in other countries. They work at an arm’s length from the regulatory agency providing education and consultation to businesses through taxpayer support. Until Canada invests in formal extension services, peer-based communities of practice can help support the needs of small business.
I’d like to extend thanks to Dr. Ron Wasik for his generous contributions to the Food in Canada Focus on Food Safety column. I have big shoes to fill.
Editor’s note: We welcome Amy Proulx as the new Focus on Food Safety columnist.
Amy Proulx is professor and academic program co-ordinator for the Culinary Innovation and Food Technology programs at Niagara College, Ont. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article was originally published in the February/March 2022 issue of Food in Canada.