(Editor’s Note: This is an online-only article attributed to the October/November 2018 issue.)
In the aftermath of the recent E. coli outbreak that was traced back to Romaine lettuce coming out of Yuma, Ariz., which reportedly led to over 200 illnesses, over 90 hospitalizations, and five deaths, the future of food traceability and real-time monitoring are top of mind in the food safety environment. With the right traceability and product movement monitoring technology, the outbreak and others like it could have been tracked down and contained within hours instead of days or weeks, or it may have been prevented altogether.
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The FDA’s Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) sets high standards for producers and growers, food retail and restaurant chains, and logistics partners. These recent outbreaks call for stronger food safety practices generally. Real-time Internet of Things (IoT), cloud-based temperature monitoring, and product traceability solutions are already making food safety easier by increasing transparency and collaboration across the supply chain, reducing the number of risk points, and helping brands to proactively reduce product and operational waste.
Temperature has the greatest impact on food safety. Adding smart sensors and devices into the shipping and storage process provides an integrated and seamless approach to tracking that keeps food cold and prevents pathogens.
There are still a number of lingering misconceptions regarding real-time visibility in the food safety cold chain.
Real-time, end-to-end cold chain visibility isn’t possible. In reality, sensors are becoming essential components of the supply chain, with temperature sensors being one of the primary means of ensuring food quality and safety. Palette-based sensors tend to provide limited data and do not provide real-time monitoring data that can be fed into a central platform.
Historically, IoT data loggers have been analog, providing critical temperature data only at the end of a shipment and after a temperature deviation has occurred. Newer technology can track temperature, humidity, light, and product movement in real time, not only for part of the supply chain, but across the entire cold chain all at once, making it possible to connect all aspects of the supply chain centrally in a single cloud platform.
With this data made available on a desktop or mobile phone, stakeholders can proactively intervene to correct a shipment before a load is wasted, preventing downstream effects on food supply that can negatively impact a brand and customer loyalty.
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Real-time monitoring technology is expensive and must be limited to parts of the cold chain. Another misconception is that real-time temperature monitors are cost-prohibitive and therefore can only be applied to projects or parts of the supply chain. While traditional models require upfront purchases in single use IoT data loggers, hardware purchases are becoming a thing of the past, with subscription-based models giving food chains access to reusable loggers and cloud-enabled software data. This makes it not only possible, but cost-effective, to scale across the cold chain.
Making logistics partners adopt and use real-time loggers is a hassle. Collaboration with key stakeholders is critical for long-term, temperature-controlled success in the cold chain. Establishing processes and setting expectations up front is a necessary component of that success. So, too, is sharing of data. Real-time data sent to a cloud platform can be accessed by shippers and receivers to ensure proactive response to any issues that arise. Transparency of shipment information can help reduce inefficiencies and save product loads before food waste occurs. These days, food chains can expect that all of their logistics partners use the same technology from end-to-end without having to purchase any hardware or software.
Leveraging real-time data is too cumbersome. One of the benefits of real-time visibility technology for the cold chain is access to shipment data across the entire cold chain. The potential downside: what to do with that data? Quality assurance teams may be used to reviewing product data at the end of a shipment. With real-time monitoring and the availability of a digital cold chain control tower, that data is available earlier in the process. This may mean that internal roles and processes evolve to ensure that shipment data is actively monitored. Newer service based cold chain monitoring solutions provide 24/7 monitoring and response services that automate the shipment process, and can manage and intervene if temperature boundaries start to deviate.