Maintaining Food Safety and Integrity From Seed to Plate

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FountainBlue’s March 28 Life Science Entrepreneurs’ Forum, on the topic of Maintaining Food Safety and Integrity From Seed to Plate, featuring:

Facilitator Gay Timmons, Oh, Oh Organic, Omica

Panelist Abizer Khairullah, Four Corner Foods

Panelist Yasmin Tyebjee, CEO, Top Nosh Specialty Foods and Top Nosh Café

Presenting Entrepreneur Robert Carter, CEO, Nikoya Foods Inc.

Presenting Entrepreneur Brian Witlin, co-Founder and CEO, Shopwell

Please join us in thanking our hosts at UCSC Extension and our sponsors at KPMG for their support of this program and the series. Below are notes from the conversation.

There are many pieces of the food value chain, and many way to slice it, from seed to plate, from farm to fork. Our panelists talked not just about the process and technology innovations throughout the value chain, and specifically in their specialty area(s), but also about their personal passion for providing more people freer access to safe, high-integrity food options to a hungry and growing market.

The panelists started by covering seed and feed innovations and the opportunities and challenges around that. Whether the panelists were talking about seed diversity, seed development, genetically engineered seeds, or other topics, it was clear not just that we had a knowledgeable panel, but also that seed innovations greatly impact the availability, range, safety and integrity of the food we serve. What might not be clear in Silicon Valley is that our local region has been known for decades for the development of quality seeds which are shipped around the world.

Each of our panelists mentioned the importance of focusing on the needs of the customer, and providing information and products and services which best serve their personalized needs. Sometimes it means leveraging technology – not just the traditional software technology which allows people to customize preferences and make informed their food choices based on those preferences, but also the technology to genetically engineer seeds to diversify a seed gene pool, or to bring manufacturing process improvement practices, processes and principles into the food production and packaging industry. We should also consider that it takes technological advancements to innovate feed and process improvements to help ensure faster, higher quality poultry and livestock overall.

Our panelists are dedicated, passionate, flexible and knowledgeable – essential qualities for success, especially since they have to deal with policies and audits and other regulations which help ensure the food served to consumers. Sometimes these policies change quickly, are vague, or just don’t serve the intended purpose. Sometimes the policy is complex, obscure or time-consuming. Clearly it is often a barrier to entrepreneurs and companies, but regulation of some sort is necessary to catch blatant violators who give a bad name to all parties throughout food value chain.

Our panelists also commented that making better food choices is a matter of education, a matter of habits and practices which lead to better and simpler food choices and better sanitation, a matter of working together to select for quality food options more freely and inexpensively available. They also consistently remarked that it could take twenty years consumers to work together to raise the bar, change policies, influence food offerings, and ultimately have higher-quality, safer food options.

Below is advice offered by our panelists to entrepreneurs seeking to enter this space:

Be Strategic

* Consider outsourcing elements of your business to others who specialize in areas such as R&D and manufacturing and distributing policy adherence and responsibilities to these partners.
* Consider the market size and the best money-making opportunity. The feedstock market might be better than the organic chicken market, and certainly can be less time intensive.
* Consider your market and who you want to serve and keep tailoring your offerings based on the needs of the market. For example, Europeans tend to go shopping every two or three days whereas Americans might shop once a month. Bagged salads with preservatives would better interest one market than the other.
* Design technology and process innovations that minimize risk throughout the value chain, and quantify the savings made, the opportunities provided.
* Innovate based on observed behaviors which are sub-optimal. They don’t have to be sophisticated innovations; they just have to make sense. Pelletizing seeds so that chickens can pick it up better is a great innovation which reduces waste, but also makes it easier to add vital nutrients to the feed.
* Seed innovators must be well aware of micro-climates which optimize development of specific seeds, and also be hyper-aware of cross-pollination challenges which might damage and infect their seeds, or that of other seed growers in the area.

Transition Technology and Process Successes Into the Food Sector

* Leveraging technology and business process improvement practices from the semiconductor industry would also benefit the food collection and processing, manufacturing and distribution needs in the food industry.
* Leveraging software and social media will help build an active customer base. Monetize that customer base using the free-mium to premium model, but also charge food manufacturers and others aggregated user data which show them how consumers are making food purchase decisions.

Work with Key Stakeholders

* Entrepreneurs leveraging databases of food information will need to work with a variety of stakeholders who are not motivated to share their data, or provide it in a standardized, easily-integrated format.

Know and Serve Your Target Market

* Note that the ingredient listings for food products are not validated by a third party, but it IS a honor system, which generally works, and is not audited unless problems arise. Is there a technology opportunity in that?
* Europeans are hyper-aware of genetically manufactured seeds and have a list of prohibited ingredients and entrepreneurs following American-centric practices may start finding themselves without access to these markets unless they plan their production and development around these requirements.

The bottom line is that the needs of the consumer are changing. Customers are demanding convenience and nutritious meals. They want objective information about food choices, especially when there isn’t an apples-to-apples comparison of food offered. They want simple ingredients, simply manufactured, inexpensively available, and throughout the year. Responding to the needs of the customer, whether it involves quality frozen goods, or plates and dishes served at restaurants; nutritious, vitamin-enhanced, disease-minimizing feed; or personalized reports on food choices, the entrepreneurs who filter their development and choices and continue to innovate to better serve their customers will have the market edge, and will emerge as market leaders in providing safe, high-integrity food to all.

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