(Editor’s Note: This is an online-only article attributed to the October/November 2017 issue.)
Every day, food products with a multitude of problems seem to find their way to market and onto the tables of consumers—but action needs to be taken sooner to prevent danger.
Tracking and tracing of food products can make it easier to gain control of the supply chain when problems occur.
A Rightful Concern of Consumers
The firm TraceOne conducted research by surveying 2,000 consumers from eight countries around the world, finding that 46 percent of respondents say the manufacturer is most responsible for quality and safety, while 34 percent said the retailer.
“Our survey findings tell retailers and manufacturers that they must prioritize their efforts to improve consumer confidence in their brands and private label products,” says Shaun Bossons, chief revenue officer, Trace One. “Overall, consumers have positive sentiments toward private label, but mixed reviews when it comes to trust and safety, which signify opportunities for retailers and manufacturers to work together to find solutions.”
Companies have a responsibility to know the complete path and whereabouts of any lot of shipped products, and act on any crisis situation the product may pose in order to protect consumers. Discovery of food contamination and the need to recall, however, often does not take place until after shipment; sometimes long after the product is shipped. Thus, speedy tracking and tracing is imperative to identify, discover, and react, in order to take control and mitigate wide scale problems.
Using sensors and data transmitted via the Internet, many different variables and parameters can be tracked by the Internet of Things (IoT). Vigilance and surveillance is possible by possessing the key data and information to know where and how to intervene.
Emerson, an engineering and technology firm, uses IoT specifically for quality and safety by monitoring a manufacturer, transporter, or distributor’s cold chain. With remote technology, it can monitor temperatures from anywhere, and act accordingly if temperature or other conditions are below standards or specifications.
“Only a few decades ago, food transporters would put a thermometer in the food once it reached its destination, whether the trip was five or 500 miles,” says Bob Sharp, executive president of Emerson Commercial and Residential Solutions. “Now, we have the technology to give us constant insight into food temperature, from the farm to the warehouse to the store, helping to protect food safety and quality for the customers we serve.”
One emerging traceability technology is blockchain, which consists of a chain of “blocks” that represent transactions and operational milestones in the flow of a product from origin to consumer. The blocks are encrypted, carved, and time stamped by “miners,” which, once incorporated in the chain, cannot be changed or removed. Access to the data can then be specified on a person-to-person or business-to-business basis. The system doesn’t require that companies change the way they are doing things, but that a single step be added to put their data into the blockchain.
By providing a permanent record of transactions, that are then grouped in blocks that cannot be altered, blockchain has the potential to serve as an alternative to traditional paper tracking and manual inspection systems. Farm origination details, batch number, factory and processing data, expiration date, storage temperature, shipping details, etc., can all be digitally traced as a food product’s information is entered into the blockchain.
“Generally, blockchain is good for the industry in recognizing that supply chain visibility through data sharing can be drastically improved from where it stands today,” says Angela Fernandez, vice president of retail grocery and food service, GS1 US. GS1 is the international standards organization that enables information to be shared in order to identify, manage, and share product data between trading partners, supply chains, and customers.
“It represents an opportunity to ensure that all supply chain partners have the same data in their databases, which would contribute to a faster and more accurate traceability structure,” says Fernandez. “But ultimately, it’s going to be up to the industry to come together to define the need and determine specific use cases for blockchain. While it is currently being evaluated by industry, we’ve also seen companies already implementing event-based traceability standards with the same type of scalability and versatility as blockchain, such as Electronic Product Code Information Services (EPCIS). Blockchain can be a vehicle for EPCIS, which is a method for reporting transactional information to the item level, or even serialized item level, and it works within the GS1 System of Standards—the same system many companies have been using for item identification, barcoding, and data exchange for decades.”
“Without traceability, it is impossible for food companies to execute a precise stock withdrawal or recall,” says Katy Jones, chief marketing officer for FoodLogiQ, which provides cloud-based software for food safety and traceability solutions, and enables food companies to create a single source of truth that can be used to achieve end-to-end traceability. “Food companies can reduce the time and costs associated with investigations and stock withdrawals by implementing the right technology. Tracking products’ status and escalation points in real time benefits everyone: from leadership to food safety to public relations.”
Jones says that many professionals are still manually managing processes through spreadsheets and emails. “It takes a long time to manage suppliers and track their performance, capture quality incidents, and even longer to respond to recalls,” she says. “Leading companies are leveraging technology to achieve full visibility and end-to-end traceability within the supply chain.”
The Road Ahead
“It’s important to note that, while traceability is being prioritized now, full supply chain visibility does not happen overnight,” says Fernandez. “It takes time for all supply chain partners to fully implement and leverage standards, train a workforce, update technological capabilities, and work through other factors necessary for full traceability to be in place.
“Through more collaboration among businesses, industry groups, and regulatory agencies, the industry will achieve a clearer view of products as they move through the supply chain in the next 3-5 years,” continues Fernandez. “But it’s up to manufacturers, distributors, retailers, as well as solution providers, to join together to fully implement the standards and best practices that can enable the next phase of the industry’s evolution.”
Jones says that success in trackability and traceability is all about transparency. In the near term, more and more stakeholders in the food supply chain will be adopting ways that allow for clear transparency. When problems occur, they are getting better at swiftly intervening to correct problems.
“In the future, the data gathered through enhanced traceability programs will support radical, verifiable transparency,” says Jones. “Imagine being able to tweet out the farm where the lettuce came from in your restaurant or chart the exact journey of the walnuts in your salad, all in real time. Recalls are highly targeted and food waste is greatly reduced. All of these things are possible with enhanced traceability.”
Romeo is a freelance writer based in Chesapeake, Va. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.