(Editor’s Note: This is an online-only article attributed to the February/March 2019 issue.)
Throughout the food processing industry, traceability is on the minds of everyone from farm to fork. With thousands of possible steps on the way to the plate, there are plenty of opportunities for food to become contaminated.
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Contamination can lead to product recalls, which can cost a company millions of dollars and damage a company’s reputation. When food recalls happen, it’s the responsibility of internal and external company investigators to identify and isolate the location of the problem along the food handling chain.
Identification is critical to a successful traceability program. Up until recently, batches were often identified with handwritten tags. Now, the industry is employing more sophisticated technology with the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), which includes sensors, radio frequency identification (RFID), and barcodes.
Mobile Computing Equips Inspection Personnel
Even with the farm/food processing industry enlisting this hardware, people are still very much part of the picture. An increasing number of operations are using industrial-grade mobile computing tablets to input data and respond to ground-level situations.
These devices are a crucial component of the industry’s goal of going paperless to simplify operations, increase the likelihood of in-depth data collection, and ensure product quality. Food inspectors may have desks, but they are rarely at them. Instead, they are roaming the plant floor, the rows in the field, and the stockyards.
By using mobile computing devices rather than clipboards, the workers on the farm and in the plant are feeding data into the system, likely a cloud-based repository. Workers have real-time visibility into the food handling system with the ability to rapidly respond to food traceability issues. This arrangement enables the operation to augment the benefits of the IIoT strategy.
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Many Still Use Paper
However, many operations are not yet ready to implement IIoT technology. In a recent InfinityQS study of 260 sites, including some of the largest processors, 75 percent of respondents admitted they are still manually collecting data, with an astonishing 45 percent relying on good old pencils, paper, and clipboards.
In these facilities, once the quality check is complete, the data can be easily lost. A recall or a check on compliance will kick off a flurry of excavation for the right piece of paper. Furthermore, paper files are often inaccessible on the plant floor when they are needed, so precious time is wasted searching for data when a quick response is required.
There are two reasons for the lack of initiative in bringing on this technology. In many companies, smartphones and computer tablets were discouraged and seen as distractions. However, a tech-savvy young workforce has exerted steady pressure to bring these devices onto the job.
Secondly, revamping an entire food production process with IIoT based monitoring can be overwhelming and seemingly cost-prohibitive. Gradually management in food production facilities recognize the cost benefit of this technology, especially compared with the tsunami of expenses a recall can bring. While the industry is developing the full IIoT farm
-to-fork system, mobile computing tablets can be part of the transition of building the farm/factory data profile.
Field and Factory Computer Tablets
Once management fully embraces the benefits of using mobile computing and makes the decision to purchase technology, it will be a bit more involved than just running out to the nearest big-box electronics store. The purchaser will need to consider the specific needs unique to the food handling environment.
No matter how modern the plant is, there’s no denying that it’s a rough environment for equipment, especially electronics. Farms and feedlots are indeed no easier in these environments, especially with the addition of the outdoor elements.