Being interviewed by Veggies From Mexico, Nadia Pasco tells us about her career at Azzule Systems, her experience in collaborating for the farming industry, the main changes she has observed during the last 10 years in food safety practices, as well as other industry requirements in terms of sustainability and adopting new solutions in terms of technology. She also shares with us the trends she believes will impact, in the medium term, the consumption of fresh produce.
1. Would you mind sharing a bit about your professional career, and what was it like for you to run Azzule Systems for over a decade?
I started working for PrimusLabs in 2003 after I graduated from school. I learned a great deal about PrimusLabs’ efforts in the agricultural industry, and it seemed to offer me a very unique opportunity to work with a company with a lot of potential. I started with PrimusLabs as a software developer in a small Information Systems department. In 2008 Azzule was formed as a division of Primus Group with the idea of growing the data management division, and I was excited about this opportunity. Azzule had already established strong relations in the fresh produce industry inherited from its parent company, so I was fortunate to be assigned to develop software that would serve our clients in communicating their compliance expectations. The challenge has always been to anticipate solutions to the evolving needs of our clients – the majority of which are fresh produce suppliers and buyers. The supply chain in fresh produce is very dynamic and complex and at the same time very competitive. When you are working with a raw agricultural commodity that doesn’t necessarily have a kill step before consumption, the unknowns can introduce risks to its consumers. Over this last decade, we have seen food safety evolve and Azzule plays a role in demonstrating the efforts that growers and farmers are constantly working on to maintain and gain new business from their clients. In addition to food safety, we are also seeing an increase in buyers’ expectations related to sustainability, social responsibility, organics, fair trade, and other issues. These play a big role in supplier approval and contract negotiations. The challenge of demonstrating compliance is a huge responsibility for producers. Azzule serves as an infomediary between buyers and sellers, helping buyers to communicate expectations and sellers to comply with them. Both groups require the flexibility to grow and adapt over time.
2. Tell us about the experience of being a leading woman working in the Farming Industry.
When I started working in this industry, I was very fortunate to join a company that supported a multicultural and diverse workforce. Over the years, Primus Group has created a positive environment around me, one in which we embrace and empower each other. I see an evolution where women are taking greater responsibility in roles in the farming industry. I have the pleasure of working with a lot of them on daily basis, and I have a lot of respect for their contribution to the industry and the work that they do.
3. What are the differences between Azzule Systems, PrimusLabs and PrimusGFS and how these collaborate together?
PrimusLabs has been running microbiological and pesticide residue labs for over 30 years, primarily for the fresh produce industry. All the data and test results that are being generated by PrimusLabs and its clients are managed by Azzule.
Azzule is a data management company that owns different platforms for the fresh produce industry. Its main platform is the Azzule Supply Chain Program. Azzule also owns the PrimusGFS audit standard that is recognized by GFSI. PrimusGFS is one of the largest auditing schemes in the Western Hemisphere for raw agricultural commodities.
Azzule manages its clients’ PrimusLabs and PrimusGFS data and facilitates the sharing of that audit and laboratory information with their customers, providing them with a visible, transparent system for complying with those customers’ expectations. In addition to PrimusGFS and PrimusLabs data, Azzule’s platform allows for management and transfer of any other audit and lab data that the suppliers want to share with their customers.
4. What are the main services provided by Azzule Systems?
The Azzule Supply Chain Program is a platform for buyers and sellers to communicate supplier approval and compliance expectations. Buyers use Azzule to set up their compliance requirements. The supplier receives the request from the buyer, and, using the platform, the supplier sends the information requested. As I mentioned earlier, most of the time the supply chain in produce is more complicated than a single step up or down the chain, so the supplier who receives the request may need to pass it on to their own suppliers to obtain the necessary records. Azzule facilitates this exchange by providing clear visibility and transparency throughout the chain.
Azzule Auditing Software is a tool to capture audits from certification bodies performing 3rd party audits and also by companies performing 1st and 2nd party audits for their own auditing programs. Companies utilizing Certification Bodies that utilize the Azzule Auditing Software have visibility throughout every step of the process from the scheduling of their audit to the issuance of their certificates, offering full transparency of the certification process.
The Azzule App is a mobile application to capture field and facility logs for multiple purposes, from pre-harvest inspections, environmental monitoring, sampling logs and equipment cleaning to quality inspections, etc. These logs will help the grower in preparation for an audit or in managing internal operations.
Azzule’s CORE Support is a program that allows companies to hire Azzule’s experts to serve as their Qualified Individuals in their efforts to comply with the Foreign Supplier Verification Program (FSVP). Utilizing Azzule’s platform, our staff helps importers of record to develop their FSVP plan, onboard their suppliers, and gather the documentation needed to meet FSVP requirements.
Additionally, Azzule provides customized services for retailers, growers and multiple organizations. We manage PrimusLabs LIMS (Laboratory Information Management System) as well as a number of Azzule APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) that serve to connect ERPs (Enterprise Resource Planning Software) to Azzule, etc.
All these different solutions work together to provide our clients an integrated solution from which they can choose what actions to take when performing their day-to-day activities or when planning ahead.
5. Would you mind telling us what new projects you are currently working on?
Over the last few years, Azzule has put a lot of emphasis on creating visualizations and graphical representations that our clients can use as tools to promote and sell their products. We created Compliance Grids as a visual representation of the compliance status of our customers’ suppliers, as well as a Supply Chain Graphic, a visual overview of the supply chain connections that is a color-coded to allow for quick and simple compliance status reviews. We are currently seeing more engagement by merchandizers in utilizing Azzule’s tools to approve suppliers. Some of these go beyond food safety expectations, now including additional corporate expectations such as sustainability, social responsibility, organics, fair trade and others. With the increase buyers demands, Azzule is looking forward to contribute to the fresh produce industry by including compliance of additional expectations that are helping sales negotiations in daily basis.
We are also launching a new Sustainability Standard that was created in collaboration with the Sustainable Food Group, and when it comes to developing sustainable practices, a major focus is on ensuring the capability to measure progress over time.
PrimusLabs has opened a laboratory in Guadalajara with microbiology and pesticide residue testing services. This will serve berry growers specifically, but it also broadens our ability to work with processors and plants in the area.
6. How do you incorporate your services to new technologies such as Blockchain and analytics and, in your opinion, what are the benefits these have for farming companies?
We are constantly keeping an eye on the use of new technologies. In the future, when contamination is suspected, Blockchain will help to reduce the time it takes for a product to be recalled, and will therefore help to reduce the extent to which an entire commodity industry is negatively impacted because Blockchain will provide the ability to identify the source of contamination in seconds, benefiting the consumer in avoiding the consumption of a specific product that could cause illness.
The challenge is to gather the data so it can be exchanged in a standardized electronic format between databases. Smaller and mid-size farmers won’t have the IT capabilities to implement all of these technologies and requirements. They will need the support from third-party companies that provide affordable and reasonable solutions so it is not so cumbersome to deal with the benefits of the technology.
Internally, companies will be looking beyond traceability. The end goal is not only to reduce the time it takes to conduct recalls, but also to reduce the introduction of contaminated product into the marketplace so as to avoid illness. We want consumers to see fresh produce as a reliable food, and for health reasons, we know increasing the consumption of fresh produce is one of the best additions people can make to their diets. Analytics play a role because farmers need more information from different sources to keep improving their practices and managing the challenges that arise on a day-to-day basis. For analytics, the ultimate goal will be to use the data that’s available to provide the capability to predict problems and thereby prevent outbreaks. It is critical that food producers learn to make changes in their practices by using the additional information that is being collected. In the future, we will also be looking to enhance our clients’ ability to make decisions on how much to produce, and where and when to do so, so they’re able to make dynamic decisions to respond to consumer needs.
7. In your experience, how important do you think food safety certifications are, and how have food safety practices evolved in farming companies for the last 10 years?
There’s definitely been an evolution in the past 10 years. Back then, food safety certifications were the first request that got farmers in the buyer’s door to begin purchasing conversations. Buyers were still struggling to get food safety audits collected and “on file.” Today, food safety certifications are a must, but they are definitely the minimal requirement to sell your products, and as I mentioned earlier, numerous additional requirements are being requested from growers. Now, the audit information is also being reviewed with additional ongoing documentation that can tell the food safety culture of an organization as opposed to the status of an operation on a certain date and time.
8. What are the main challenges the farming industry has dealt with in recent times?
The challenge is satisfying the consumers’ needs while trying to comply with the buyers’ requirements. We hear consumers want produce grown local; they want to buy organic products; they may want to buy from companies with sustainable practices and are not detrimental to the environment; they may be looking for non-GMO products, etc. When the consumer asks for certain types of products, retailers have to make decision on how to respond to those needs. Are they are going to use a broad strategy or a targeted strategy? Then, the farmer has to figure out what their diverse clients are providing consumers and understand what to do to comply with these buyers’ expectations. It can become a very complex task. Azzule looks to facilitate this communication and to help our clients manage these expectations.
9. How do you visualize the farming sector in the next 10 years, and what are the main trends that will impact the industry in the coming years?
I see technology playing a bigger role in the decisions that are made on how, what, and when to produce. Sustainability will have an impact on these decisions on how a product is grown and how we satisfy the next generation’s needs. I think there are trends that are promoting the consumption of fresh produce and the demand will keep growing, so the outlook is very positive for our industry. It’s clear that opportunities will favor the prepared minds and those willing to embrace change.
10. Is there anything else you would like to add?
I’d just like to say thank you for this opportunity, and to congratulate Veggies from Mexico on embracing growers in Mexico and helping them gain recognition for this important sector of the agricultural community.