The Impact of COVID-19 on Selecting a Supplier

14 July 2020

Scott Buchwalter, Senior Quality Assurance and Laboratory Manager, Trouw NutritionBy Scott Buchwalter 
Senior Quality Assurance and Laboratory Manager

What parameters matter when sourcing raw materials? Should ingredients be feed or food-grade? What amount of active substance is required? Does the ingredient need to be organic or non-GMO? Does the country of origin matter? These are just a few of the questions that must be considered each time an ingredient is sourced.

The process for selecting a supplier has changed in the pandemic world and will likely remain changed post-COVID-19.

Until all ingredient needs are identified, assessed and evaluated based on the end-product’s specifications, identifying a supplier is nearly impossible. Most companies enjoy long-term partnerships with reliable suppliers, built on years of quality service and the dependable delivery of the right ingredient at the right time and in to the right specifications. But sometimes your vetted, top-tier suppliers don’t offer what you need, necessitating the selection of a new supplier.

Supplier Evaluation Pre-COVID-19
Several years ago, Nutreco, Trouw Nutrition’s parent company, developed a shared quality system named
1 Quality Management (1QM). Representatives from the different types of businesses throughout Trouw Nutrition and Skretting, the global leader in aquaculture feed also owned by Nutreco, came together to discuss how we currently approved ingredients and what we believed the future of ingredient approval would require.

Incorporating both the current and anticipated future needs identified by the cross-functional team,
1QM has proven to be successful across the companies. The system is not only a repository for reviewed documents, audit certificates and surveys, but also the evaluations performed in the approval process for each ingredient.

The process features four sections (item, manufacturer, supplier and operating company), each focusing on a different part of the ingredient’s supply chain. Each section brings the ingredient further into the approval process and risk evaluation becomes more detailed. Depending on the risk assessments, visiting the manufacturer may be warranted or required as part of the long-term approval of the ingredient. Another section of the approval process includes reviewing the sample. This review entails an examination of nutritional adequacy, specification compliance and undesired substances, as is customary, but it also evaluates the handling characteristics.

Supplier Selection in a Pandemic
How do you qualify a new supplier, especially in the current environment with COVID-19 dominating many aspects of our lives and business? Under these circumstances, we must rely on the tools identified above with the exception of in-person visits and with the addition of suppliers completing more comprehensive surveys. These surveys are reviewed with a more critical eye and place greater emphasis on open-ended questions and then following up on the questions that require more detailed or complete responses.

Often, suppliers participate in third-party auditing programs, such as Safe Quality Food (SQF) or Feed Additive and preMIxture System (FAMI-QS), which significantly aid the ingredient supplier selection process. If the supplier completed the third-party audit prior to COVID-19, these audits would typically have been conducted in-person and usually over the course of several days. In essence, we trust these accrediting organizations to be our eyes with in-person audits typically not an option this year. As such, in 2020, many of the audits will be completed virtually. Although this may not be ideal, it is our current reality.

Especially under pandemic conditions, large companies can benefit from the knowledge and experience of sister companies. Trouw Nutrition, for example, can benefit from the knowledge and experience of Skretting, Trouw Nutrition Great Britain and other sister companies under the umbrella of our parent companies, Nutreco and SHV. Due to company travel restrictions, it is not wise or possible to fly to Spain, Tunisia or Germany to evaluate a new manufacturer, but in many cases, these sister companies are already doing business with these suppliers and have been able to vet them before travel became restricted. Sister companies’ reviews and audits add great credibility to the ingredient supplier evaluation.

Along the same vein, companies conducting supplier assessments may call on industry contacts to ask if they are experienced with a manufacturer or supplier. Neither option fully replaces an in-person audit, but both provide great value and aid in vendor selection, rather that moving forward with a new manufacturer or supplier based solely on answers to a written survey alone.

Even after a supplier successfully passes the rigorous screening process and begins to supply ingredients, the supplier must continue to complete surveys, report on quality assurance steps being taken, and if necessary, continue to pass in-person audits once travel restrictions allow. Supplier assessments don’t end after the initial approval, but rather are an ongoing process to ensure that the ingredients and suppliers continue to meet the high standards set, necessary for protecting our brands and the lives of our beloved furry friends.

Supplier Evaluation Post-COVID-19
Neither life nor business will likely return to pre-COVID-19 conditions. Businesses will probably remain more vigilant about permitting external personnel into offices and manufacturing facilities. Our food/feed defense plans will forever be affected by our current reality, with greater scrutiny placed on who and how many people we permit to come into contact with our coworkers and facility. As an industry, hopefully a higher value will be bestowed upon third-party audits, as a way to both decrease the number of outside people allowed to enter the facility and as a way to decrease the frequency of in-person audits.

Our way of completing quality assurance processes and tests has been affected and forever altered by our current reality, but that does not have to devalue the importance we place on quality practices, audits and relationships. Our new challenge is to determine how we progress in a post-pandemic world by preserving the practices that bring our companies value and pruning away those that do not.