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Amazon exec shares safety policies, technologies at Food Safety Summit

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ROSEMONT, ILL. - While Amazon takes pride in its unique business model, the company also boasts some innovative food safety strategies and tools that are already proving effective in detecting potential hazards in food products.

For example, Amazon caught a food safety problem in a dietary supplement through a consumer complaint and blocked sales of the product 57 days before the manufacturing company itself recalled the supplement because of the same problem (an undisclosed ingredient).

That is what Carletta Ooton, Amazon’s vice president for health, safety, sustainability, security and compliance, said on Wednesday (May 9) at the Food Safety Summit in Rosemont, Ill. Ooton was the keynote speaker at the event and for the first time in the summit’s history her address was broadcast live to an additional audience of 7,000 food safety professionals.

A behemoth international company that began as an online book seller in a Bellevue, Wash. garage in 1994, Amazon now boasts a worldwide customer base of 300 million and $177 billion in annual revenue. Because of its growing food-related services and last year’s purchase of Whole Foods Market, the company has been gaining increasing attention from the food industry.

Ooton, however, would not talk about the retailer’s plans for Whole Foods, because that initiative was still “very new” in its integration, and instead focused on Amazon’s other food-centered endeavors, such as Amazon Go, a partially automated grocery story in Seattle, where an app checks out purchases for customers eliminating the need for checkout lines and cashiers.

“We only have one Amazon Go store at this time, but we are super excited about the possibilities and the future of Amazon Go,” she said. “It’s really not about self-checkout at all. It really is being completely checkout-free.”

Ooton also outlined the challenges that the company’s encountered in terms of food sales and some of the innovative strategies that Amazon has developed to monitor the safety of the massive quantities of food items it sells.

Amazon sells food items – mostly dry foods and supplements – through its core online business, which requires the operation of 250 massive fulfilment centers around the world, Ooton said.

“Some of these sites are enormous,” she said. “Some of the main challenges for this part of our business is actually the enormity of the offering and enormity of the amount of supply base we have.”

But the company has also branched out into fresh food sales through the 2007 launch of Amazon Fresh, an online grocery delivery service, which offers same-day or overnight deliveries of produce, chilled and frozen items and is now available at select locations in North America, Europe and Japan.

The company has recently expanded that service with Amazon Pickup, which instead of the traditional delivery, allows customers to pick up the groceries they ordered online within 15 minutes from a physical location.

“It’s new, we only have two locations open and operating,” she said.

There is also Prime Now, a food delivery service similar to Amazon Fresh, which banks on extra-quick delivery.

“It’s similar to Amazon Fresh but with a little less selection and faster shipments,” Ooton said. “It’s almost like a convenience store … from a selection perspective. And delivery for Prime Now can be in as little as one hour. We have 70 small fulfilment centers that support a Prime Now business and they are based predominantly in dense urban areas.”

The company has even tapped into the foodservice sector with Amazon Restaurant, a partnership with more than 6,000 local restaurants, allowing customers to receive online ordered meals in less than one hour. Amazon even has 350 private label food products, including brands like Mama Bear, Happy Belly and Wickedly Prime. 

Amazon’s food safety strategies

And while managing food safety across all these services and product offerings can be challenging, Amazon has come up with some strategies that are allowing the company to keep the bar high, not only in product quality but also in safety, Ooton said.

“Amazon is known for operational excellence and we do have robust processes, very comprehensive training and … rigorous audit protocols,” she said. “We have a pretty high bar for protecting the customer experience. … But we also know that there is no margin for error when it relates to food safety.”

One of these strategies can be found in in the Amazon Fresh deli slicing operations, where the system has the capacity to perform cross-contact verification at the time a whole piece of meat is being sliced and alert the operator if they attempt to slice a non-allergy product on a slicer that was used for another product containing allergens.

“We have a pretty high bar for protecting the customer experience. … But we also know that there is no margin for error when it relates to food safety.” - Carletta Ooton, Amazon

“If the associate really, really needs to use that slicer, the system will automatically enforce a hold of 20 minutes, which ensures that you have the right time to complete the right cleaning process,” she said. “By looking at this high-risk process and determining how we can reduce the risk, we’ve chosen to use technology and automate, which again reduces the risk of human error.”

Using smart technology to flag food safety issues

Amazon also relies heavily on customer feedback and has found innovative ways to use customer reviews in order to spot food safety issues, Ooton stressed. Amazon collects more than 16 million pieces of customer feedback – including product reviews, social media messages, return comments, buyer-to-seller messages, and customer service calls. And thanks to a tool named Heartbeat, the company has found a way to sift through that information and extract data that could indicate the presence of a potential hazard in a food product.

The process is called natural language processing and allows a computer to scan messages for comments that contain positive or negative comments, weigh them against each other and make a determination on whether a customer message should be reviewed further, as it could indicate a problem with a product. The system works with extreme accuracy in eight languages and can evaluate even tricky customer messages, Ooton said.

“That is extremely important when we are trying to unlock the meaning of customer comments without the need for a reviewer,” she said. “It’s critical to separate the noise of all of this input from the real signal that we need to find.”

The system is so sophisticated that it can distinguish between a comment that indicates a simple dislike for a product, such as “I hated the taste of this, but it did the job," from a comment that would suggest a food safety problem, “Gave me energy for my workouts but wreaked havoc on my digestive tract."

And once a comment has been flagged, Amazon can choose to either suppress the detail page for that product, do nothing or pass on the case for further review by a subject matter expert.

Recall innovation 

Ooton shared some details on how Amazon handles recalls, which average to about 2,000 each year.

The company has found a way to automate that process as well and, in addition to monitoring regulatory websites for recalled products, it uses complex syntax and image matching to finding listings of recalls not just online, but also in physical stores.

Flagged products are then removed from the site and purchase orders are canceled. Customers, in the meantime, receive a message informing them about the recall.

“We have an overlapping system of controls that prevents any recalled inventory from being attached to a customer order. We apply a virtual recall label, and this prevents us from shipping anything out, stowing anything, or trans-shipping it from site to site.”

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