Cognac manufacturer Hennessy joined AuraBlockchain, a non-profit private blockchain for luxury brands that can be used to track the entire supply chain of a product. From raw materials to manufacturing to the consumer, digital timestamps are used to trace and record every step of the production process. Every product has a unique ID, with decentralized and unchangeable blockchain records. The consumer can check these records online to ensure authenticity of the purchased product.
Despite what our parents told us, it’s not always healthy to eat our vegetables. In late 2020, 40 people contracted E. coli from leafy greens in the United States. By the time the outbreak was declared over, 20 victims had been hospitalized and four developed kidney failure. On top of the human cost, the food distribution businesses involved spent millions of dollars on public information as well as tracing the tainted vegetables and removing them from the market.
The USDA estimates that dealing with foodborne diseases cost $15.6 billion annually. Inefficient and painstaking guesswork is required with every incident, trying to find where the outbreak originated, and locate every shipment that may or may not have come into contact with that diseased strain which must then be recalled, as there’s no way to know for sure what has been affected. And by the time the original culprit is found, the malady may have spread so far that there is no choice but to recall and destroy tons of potentially wholesome products.
What if all this waste—not to mention dozens of infections—could be avoided? What if a foolproof, secure and constantly updating system could track the original tainted produce back to the farm it came from and confirm every employee, transport, and container it has been in contact with on the way? This technology exists today, ready to make food distribution not just safer but also more transparent, efficient and cost effective. It’s called blockchain.
Anyone with a passing familiarity with blockchain knows the technology was originally developed to track and safeguard cryptocurrency transactions. And while Bitcoin and its competitors definitely put the crypto in currency by being inscrutable to outsiders, it’s hard to call food supply chains a lot less complex. It is the vital importance of making that complexity accessible and understandable that makes blockchain the perfect way to futureproof distribution.
What Is Blockchain, Really?
Blockchain is a secure and decentralized ledger that tracks and records transactions. The keywords that indicate why this is an ideal solution for food supply businesses are “secure” and “decentralized.”
More than any other ledger system, blockchain is secure against tampering. Blockchain transactions can’t be altered or hidden, because every change is tracked and recorded and must be approved across the entire system. This system is also decentralized. Instead of one single ledger where a tiny mistake hidden on one obscure ledger could throw off an entire operation, blockchain distributes the whole ledger to all sources across a network, so anyone with the required permissions can see changes across the entire system in real time. When one person makes changes on their version of the ledger, all stakeholders across the network must confirm those changes, and the system remembers where and when they were made.
By distributing the records across different systems and always tracking changes, blockchain eliminates the guesswork and busywork of finding any individual item, when and how it was altered, and by whom. A simple search pinpoints any given item’s previous, current and future position in a supply chain. That search also reveals any other items with which it is shared space. Where once disease outbreaks meant painstaking searches and expensive purges of product, blockchain makes isolating infected produce easy and precise, saving capital and even lives, especially when time is a factor.
Transparency Is Time
When tracking products, blockchain’s unique advantages simply slice time off the process. By distributing its records, blockchain removes harmful lag between parties knowing when changes are made to a single master ledger. There is no need to wait for someone earlier on in the supply chain to update their documents, then for a central office to confirm and collate that update before the information can move further down the line. All stakeholders with the proper permissions can get a full view of inventory, finances, and concerns — all updated in real time the moment a change takes place.
Banks, suppliers, retailers and more can share immediate access to live changes in a system using blockchain. Keeping everyone updated becomes streamlined, tamper-proof and completely trustworthy. Suppliers and retailers can study trends in the ledger and see their partners taking out loans or expanding inventory space, allowing everyone to anticipate each others’ needs and react to crises like tainted produce much faster.
Everyone Knows Everything
In an emergency, the most important questions are often who knows what, where is the information that will lead to tracking down the problem, and more importantly, who has it? With blockchain, there’s no need to follow a trail of evidence in hopes of finding the original ledger where the problem appears, because the distributed network automatically upgrades universally across all systems.
Any mistake appears everywhere at once and can be caught by any number of parties, who are alerted in real time to every change. This creates redundant failsafes to prevent errors and catch problems. Not only are causes easier to track, but operational mistakes and execution errors are caught immediately. Partners can update schedules and adjust shipments, confident that everyone involved is automatically informed.
Way Beyond Bitcoin
Blockchain’s origins in cryptocurrency make it an ideal system for tracking and safeguarding transactional pipelines of all sorts, and this makes it uniquely suited to food supply chains. No other system seamlessly records countless transactions across multiple sources while keeping a clean record for all involved. This not only saves crucial time and money during a challenge like an E. coli outbreak, it smooths out longstanding problems in the food distribution industry by adding unprecedented access and redundancy.
Upon adopting this new technology, the food distribution industry will enter a new era of reliability and cooperation as tracking every product from farm to plate becomes the standard. Even without an outbreak to lock down, blockchain will improve every aspect of supply chain management, paving the way for a more efficient and collaborative industry. Our modern world relies on communication and authenticity, and blockchain can only make the truth clearer.
Why do we need traceability solutions for the supply chain?
Brett Gray: Supply chains changed from a linear model to more like ecosystems. Raw materials and ingredients are traveling from multiple sources multiple times, and you are no longer relying on a single supplier, but, rather, on a large number of suppliers and an entire new network of people, who enable you to accomplish the objectives for your business. These new ecosystems have made things more complex, and forced companies to change their business models, forming multiple relationships, thus storing data in multiple locations. As a result, consumer trust has shifted from known brands to products. With multiple sourcing of raw materials or ingredients by [previously] trusted producers, consumers want to know, how these ingredients were grown, transported and stored. Consumers are looking now at the labels, rather than logos. While consumers are asking for proofs of origin, quality, social responsibility and sustainability, brands are struggling to share about all efforts and investments made into specific products, as well as create engaging for this or that group of consumers touch points.
So, how is this technology – blockchain – appeared to be best suitable to fulfill the current market requirements for the proof of products origins for the end consumer?
Gray: Blockchain is a decentralized (no single ownership), distributed ledger-like digital structure that allows a community to record, share and maintain information. The documents are like IDs we know: A passport or a driving license, except these are for products. These documents are protected by encryption from being modified and irreversibly time stamped. Each document in the blockchain is connected to the previously produced one and the one produced after, so it forms a chain of blocked documents. Blockchain technology acts as a perfect trust generator for different types of businesses. The authenticity of data in it renders trust among stakeholders previously unknown to each other.
DNV GL started developing its My Story blockchain based solution about a decade ago, when this technology was not well known. Now it enables companies to prove that their “marketing buzzwords” are, in fact, true, verified statements. For companies seriously investing in sustainable processes and value chains, it enables sharing about these efforts directly with the end consumer, setting such companies apart from less serious, greenwashing players.
About Brett Gray
As the Digital Transformation Manager at DNV, I oversee all digital projects, strategy, and solution for the entire region of North America, with the intention of bringing technology stacks and other emerging technologies like blockchain, AR/VR, artificial intelligence and big data analytics to change the way we interact with and provide services to our customers.
Food Safety Recalls – Digging Deeper into FDA, CDC, USDA & Food Industry Data, with Allen Sayler, EAS Consulting
Preparing for Blockchain in “A New Era of Smarter Food Safety”, with Kathy Barbeire, CAT Squared
The Road to Traceability is Paved with Standards, with Lucelena Angarita, IPC/Subway and Liz Serti, GS1 US
TechTalk from Controlant
The event begins at 12 pm ET on Thursday, December 10. Haven’t registered? Follow this link to the 2020 Food Safety Consortium Virtual Conference Series, which provides access to all the episodes featuring critical industry insights from leading subject matter experts! We look forward to your joining us virtually.
Some impressive technologies are not only impacting the food industry right now but will also have a huge impact in the future. As their use grows to be more prevalent, the industry will change to be smarter and more efficient, with continued improvements across the board.
1. AI and Advanced Robotics
While artificial intelligence and advanced robotics are two distinct technologies, they are frequently paired together. AI, and the data it digests, is used to command robots, allowing them to be more precise, more intelligent and more aware.
Most robots on their own are capable of completing only repetitive and clearly defined tasks. Throw something unique into the mix and they’ll either fumble or fail. However, when governed by data-based intelligence solutions like AI or machine learning, those robots become something incredibly advanced.
In the food industry, machinery and robots are leveraged to improve operations, further maintaining quality and efficiency, at affordable costs. They often work alongside human laborers to augment or enhance processes. They come with several unexpected benefits as well, such as much-improved safety for workers, faster and higher product output and consistent, reliable quality.
For example, JBS, one of the world’s largest meatpacking firms, deployed robotic butchers within its plants. The robots were used to slice more challenging meats, which reduced workplace injuries.
Automation stands alongside AI and advanced robotics, even incorporating those technologies to create a streamlined system. As of 2017, 73% of surveyed companies in the food and beverage manufacturing industry either had or were in the process of establishing automation within their facilities.
Many systems are designed to replace or enhance repetitive tasks, boosting their speed and accuracy, to significantly improve output, without incurring a loss in quality. It’s not just about hardware, like swapping a human laborer for a robot. It’s also achieved through software. Think supply chain management solutions that help plan for various events and experiences without human input.
When many of these technologies are used side-by-side, it strengthens their application and usability. As is true of advanced robotics, for example, AI can also be used to create more intelligent automation platforms. Instead of carrying out rote or simple tasks, they can be programmed to react and engage through any number of parameters. The system might slow production, for instance, based on a decrease in product demand. Or, it might swap to an alternate component or ingredient because of a shortage somewhere.
With the right controls and support, automation technologies are game-changing. With the global population growing and demands increasing more with each year, food manufacturers will look to streamline their operations and boost output in any way possible, and automation will be a go-to.
3. Digital Twins
Digital twins in food manufacturing are essentially simulated copies or a virtual representation of a physical system. That definition might seem confusing, but think of it as a clone that can be manipulated for testing and analytics.In other words, it is a twin of the actual system and information, in every sense of the word, albeit one that is more versatile and less vulnerable. It allows manufacturers and distributors to run simulations by feeding specific information into the system to identify patterns, recognize outcomes and much more.
As the systems and controls supporting the field become smarter and more digitized, digital twins in food manufacturing will find their way into product development, testing, post-production, distribution and nearly every other facet of the industry. It will become an integral component to not only understand what’s happening in the market but also for keeping up with the ebb and flow of supply and demand.
Even well before the pandemic, people had become much more conscious about the foods they consume. They want to know the origin of their goods and whether they’ve been sourced using safe, healthy and environmentally friendly methods. The problem with such demands is that, until recently, there haven’t been many solutions for increased visibility within the food supply chain.
Growing concerns for health are now a priority, and visibility is an absolute must. Blockchain technology is the answer, providing precisely the kind of visibility, efficiency, controls and collaboration that consumers want.
With this food manufacturing technology in place, someone could trace a head of lettuce back to its initial seeding. They can see who grew the plants and where, and which methods they used to mature the crop. Then, they can follow its journey to the store shelf.
How is such a thing possible? It all has to do with the technology. In its simplest form, Blockchain is a digital ledger or complete and digitized record of a particular data set. The data that goes in is added to something called a block, and as more is added, it is tacked on to the end of that block to create a long, linked record. Every bit of information is visible across the entire chain, hence the name blockchain.
Walmart is using the technology to track potential food contamination outbreaks. It empowers them to not just find the source but also find the many branches involved — like where goods might have been shipped and who may have purchased them.
Food Manufacturing Technology for the Future
While each food manufacturing technology discussed here is incredibly influential and will have a direct impact on the future of the industry, they are not the only solutions making waves. Some additional examples include:
Drones and automated delivery vehicles
3-D printing for edible goods
Smart or precision agriculture
Smarter waste disposal and recycling
The takeaway is that technology is vastly improving the operational efficiency of the food supply chain, from farmers and manufacturers to the retail stores featuring goods on their shelves. There’s no right or wrong buy-in, as any one of these technologies can be used to streamline separate processes. The biggest challenge will be deciding what to upgrade first, especially when it comes to delivering high-quality, fresh goods in a prompt manner.
Last week we were joined by experts in pest management for Episode 2 of the 2020 Food Safety Consortium Virtual Conference Series. Although pest management may not be seen as the most exciting topic, all food plants are required to have an integrated pest management program. In addition, the digital transformation fast-tracked by COVID-19 is also driving innovation in the remote monitoring of pests.
Barney Debnam, global agriculture strategy lead at Microsoft kicked off the conversation with some key themes driving change within the global food system, which have also been accelerated by COVID: Geopolitical forces, consumerization, democratized biology, sustainability, shifting economics and food security. As technology continues to evolve and is adopted at a faster pace (think artificial intelligence and how accessible it is now), businesses will be able to transform their outcomes by becoming more predictive. The key technology enablers in the process include:
Internet of Things and edge computing
Artificial intelligence and cognitive computing
The most significant benefit of implementing technology such as remote monitoring into an IPM program is its ability to provide visibility and the data to back up what is happening in a facility.
To say that COVID-19 has been disruptive would be putting it mildly. The pandemic’s sudden and seismic impact has brought major upheaval across industries—the food industry and its supply chain included.
There was the initial panic buying that drove upticks in consumer demand for which few manufacturers and grocers were prepared, resulting in widespread product shortages. With restaurants closed, distributors and suppliers were left with considerable excess inventory—most of which ended up as waste and losses. Inside production sites and plants, many had to try and maintain their output with a reduced workforce, even as demand continued to climb. Meanwhile, some plants unfortunately have had to shut down operations on account of employees testing positive for COVID-19.
In the time since the outbreak, the food supply chain has stabilized to an extent. Store shelves are continuously being replenished with products. Restaurants have started reopening with new health and safety measures. Yet even as the industry takes gradual steps toward recovery, the underlying problem that led to the magnitude of COVID-19’s impact persists: Lack of visibility. There was lack of visibility into supply and demand and what was happening upstream and downstream across the supply chain, which prevented timely, proactive action to optimize operations in face of disruption.
Looking ahead, participants across the food supply chain will need enhanced end-to-end visibility so that they can work together to get ahead of the curve. As part of gaining this visibility, they will need the transparent exchange of information and cohesive collaboration to adapt especially as the food industry continues to see shifts in consumer behavior and the marketplace in the wake of COVID-19—particularly in the following three key areas.
While food producers have been working tirelessly to keep grocery store shelves and restaurant kitchens well stocked, there continues to be fluctuating availability on certain products, such as eggs, dairy, poultry and meat. This has led distributors and suppliers to increase their prices when selling these goods to stores and restaurants, who have had to then pass the additional costs on to consumers through their own price increases and surcharges, respectively. One report from CoBank, a cooperative bank part of the Farm Credit System, notes there could be as much as a 20% increase in the price of pork and beef this year due to supply issues.1 Many grocers have also implemented purchase limitations on consumers to combat shortages.
These downstream implications stem largely to uncertainty in the supply chain, with stores and restaurants unsure about available supply upstream and when they can expect to receive shipments. But if there was clearer visibility and transparency between production, distribution, transportation, food service and retail, then all parties could better anticipate and plan for supply shortages or delays. For instance, if a meat processing plant has to temporarily close due to cases of COVID-19, they can immediately communicate to the rest of the supply chain so that parties downstream can readily find alternative sources and minimize any necessary price inflations or other implications to consumers.
Even with the reopening of restaurants, people will likely choose to cook more of their meals at home. It was a trend that began with restaurant closures and will continue for the foreseeable future as consumers remain cautious of dining out. While this may bring tough times ahead for the food service industry, the grocery sector is seeing a huge lift in business. Research from restaurant management platform Crunchtime shows that, towards the end of June, restaurants were only seeing 64.5% of their pre-COVID-19 sales levels.2 At the same time, a study by Brick Meets Click and Mercatus reveals U.S. online grocery sales reached a record $7.2 billion in June, up nearly 10% over May.3
For food companies and brands, growth in the grocery sector has presented a challenge in the way of demand planning and forecasting. I’ve personally spoken with several company executives who have seen significant upticks in orders from their grocery channel partners—an increase for which they didn’t forecast—and are now struggling to adjust production levels accordingly to avoid the risk of excess production that would lead to unnecessary costs, wastes and losses. In such instances, real-time visibility into transactional activity and stock levels at the retail level would help production planners improve the accuracy of their forecasts and enable them to think steps ahead before orders come in and thereby optimally balance supply with demand. Stores would remain well stocked and the supply chain could flow in a more efficient and profitable way for all participants.
Without question, public health is the number one priority right now. Participants at each point in the food supply chain today need to communicate with each other, as well as to consumers, that they’re following best practices for social distancing, disinfecting and other precautions. It’s not to prevent the possible transfer of the virus via actual products, as the FDA notes there is currently no evidence of transmission through food or packaging. But rather, it’s to build greater confidence in the food supply chain—that everyone is doing their part to support individual and collective health and safety, which in turn prevents possible facility closures or other case-related bottlenecks that would inhibit consistent supply to the market.
There also has to be confidence that, amid these countermeasures for COVID-19, companies are still upholding their commitments to food safety, integrity and proper handling. What can support that confidence is data—shared data from every point in a product’s journey from source to shelf. The data should be transparent and available to all supply chain participants as well as immutable so that it is tamperproof and fully traceable should there be any problem, such as mislabeling or a foodborne illness. The data ultimately holds everyone accountable for their role in ensuring a safe food supply chain.
To achieve the level of visibility outlined above, the food industry will have to break away from legacy processes involving the siloed management of operational systems and databases. Instead, the disruption seen during COVID-19 and ongoing shifts in the marketplace should encourage companies to consider digital transformation and technologies that can enable a more cohesive and nimble food supply chain. These are technologies like blockchain, which provides a decentralized, distributed ledger to publish and share data in real time. Moreover, artificial intelligence that can leverage incoming real-time data to guide next-best actions, even when the unexpected occurs. Personally, I always return to the notion that the supply chain is a team sport. You need visibility to know what each team member is doing on the field and how to align everyone on a gameplay. The digital solutions available today offer that visibility and insight, as well as the agility to pivot as needed to obstacles along the journey from source to shelf.
Since the early 20th century, food safety has been a paramount concern for consumers in the United States. Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, which painted a bleak, brutal, and downright disgusting picture of turn-of-the-century food processing facilities led to the creation of some of the country’s first food safety laws. Today, federal agencies and statutes make up a comprehensive food safety system to ensure that the growth, distribution and consumption of foods are safe from start to finish.
While food safety has significantly improved in the century since Sinclair’s time, stories of major outbreaks of foodborne illnesses continue to pop up across the country. Over the past few years, a significant number of outbreaks as a result of pathogens have made the headlines. To mitigate the threat of public health crises and ensure food production and distribution is safe and secure, companies must rely on modern technology to trace the movement of food across the entire supply chain.
How Technology Is Changing the Food Industry
Technology is a powerful, innovative force that has changed the way even well established companies must do business in order to stay relevant. From easier access to nutritional information to digital solutions that make food manufacturing and distribution more efficient, greater consumer awareness driven by technology empowers consumers to make decisions that can greatly affect the food industry’s bottom line.
Technology-driven accountability is playing one outsized role in allowing consumers to make better choices about the foods they consume and purchase. Social media and smartphone apps connect consumers to a wealth of resources concerning the harmful effects of certain ingredients in their food, the source of products, and how particular items are made and produced. In 2015, for example, The Campbell Soup Company removed 13 ingredients from its traditional soup recipes as a result of a greater public demand to understand food sources. Neither food giants nor small producers should expect to remain immune from greater public scrutiny over food health and safety.
Nutritional research is also helping change the conversation around food, granting nutritionists and consumers alike greater access to food-related data. Through easily accessible scholarly journals, apps that provide real-time nutrition information, and meal tracking apps that help users log and understand what they’re eating, consumers can gain a better understanding of nutrition to make more informed choices about their daily food intake. Researchers can also use food-tracking apps to make discoveries about consumer behavior and foods that are eaten.
Technology is also being used to tackle food waste, one of the most pervasive problems facing the food industry. One-third of the total amount of food produced globally, amounting to nearly $1.2 trillion, goes to waste every year. Solving this pervasive crisis has become an industry imperative that is being tackled through a variety of innovative technologies to improve shelf-life, dynamically adjust pricing based on sell-by dates, and allow restaurants to automatically monitor their daily waste.
In the food manufacturing sector, digitally-connected supply chain systems are providing greater visibility into the production of foods and beverages. Supplier management technology delivers data that can be used to optimize processes and improve quality in real-time, making it easy to adjust to consumer demands, respond to logistics challenges, and boost government compliance. The enhanced operational benefits offered through improved supply chain visibility allows manufacturers to produce products faster, safer, and with greater transparency.
Online ordering has also ushered in a new era of food industry behavior. The growing assortment of online ordering apps has just given the consumer more control over quickly ordering their next meal. The trend in online ordering has also allowed restaurants to experiment with new business models like virtual kitchens that offer menus that are only available online.
IoT: The Future of Food Safety
From the farm to the carryout bag, the impact of technology on the greater food industry is already evident in daily practice. Through enhanced access to data, food producers can run an efficient supply chain that reduces waste, boosts productivity, and meets consumer demand in real-time. Using a variety of online resources, consumers are empowered to quickly make well-informed food purchases that are healthier, more convenient and more sustainable than ever before.
The Internet-of-Things (IoT) adds a layer of technology to the food manufacturing process to ensure greater food safety. A broad series of networked sensors, monitors, and other Internet-connected devices, IoT technology can oversee the entire food manufacturing and distribution process from the warehouse to the point of sale. Boosting transparency across the board, intelligent sensors and cameras can transform any food manufacturing operation into a highly visible, data-backed process that allows for better decision-making and improved real-time knowledge.
While IoT technology is a powerful tool that can improve the efficiency of restaurants and provide enhanced customer experiences, some of its greatest potential lies in its ability to safely monitor food preparation and production. Live data from IoT devices makes it possible to closely monitor food safety data points, allowing manufacturers and restaurants to reduce the risks of foodborne illness outbreaks through enhanced data collection and automated reporting.
Domino’s Pizza, for instance, embraced IoT technology to enhance management processes and monitor the food safety of its products. In the past, restaurants have relied on workers to record food temperatures, a practice that was occasionally overlooked and could lead to issues with health inspectors. Using IoT devices for real-time temperature monitoring, Domino’s automatically records and displays temperature levels of a store’s production, refrigeration, and exhaust systems, allowing employees to view conditions from a live dashboard.
In addition to boosting food safety, the comprehensive monitoring offered by IoT technology can help food companies reduce waste, keep more effective records, and analyze more data for improved operations.
IoT isn’t just a safe solution for improving food safety: It’s a smart solution.
Blockchain: The Future of Food Traceability
The ubiquity of QR codes has made it easy for consumers to quickly gain access to information by scanning an image with their smartphone. From accessing product manuals to downloading songs, QR codes make it simple to provide detailed and relevant content to users in a timely manner.
Blockchain technology provides a powerful opportunity to provide consumers with similar information about food safety. Able to instantaneously trace the lifecycle of food products, blockchain can report a food’s every point of contact throughout its journey from farm to table. By scanning a QR code, for instance, users can quickly access relevant information about a food product’s source, such as an animal’s health, and welfare. Shoppers at Carrefour, Europe’s largest retailer, area already using blockchain traceability to track the stage of production of free-range chickens across France.
Walmart piloted a blockchain implementation by tracing a package of sliced mangoes across every destination until it hit store shelves, from its origin at a farm in Mexico to intermittent stops at a hot-water treatment plant, U.S processing plant, and cold storage facility. Real-time product tracing can be conducted in just two seconds, enabling Walmart and other vendors to provide consumers with access to food safety information that could easily be updated should an outbreak or contamination occur.
Blockchain’s inherent transparency not only makes it possible to identify the safety of food production; it also enhances the safety of the business of food production itself. Because blockchain is based upon an immutable, anonymous ledger, record keeping and accounting can be made more secure and less prone to human error. Payments to farmers and other food suppliers can also become more transparent and equitable.
The High Tech Future of Food
Unlike the days of Sinclair’s The Jungle, food transparency is the name of today’s game. As consumers continue to demand greater access to better food on-demand, food producers must continue to find innovative ways of providing safe, healthy, and ethical solutions.
IoT devices and blockchain present food manufacturers with powerful technological solutions to solve complex problems. Brands choosing to rely on these innovations, such as Domino’s and Walmart, are helping ensure that food is produced, prepared and distributed with a foremost emphasis on health and safety. As these technologies continue to become more intelligent, well-connected, and embraced by leading food producers, consumers should rest assured that they’ll always be able to know exactly what they’re eating, where it’s from, and whether it’s safe.
By Benjamin A. Katchman, Ph.D., Michael E. Hogan, Ph.D., Nathan Libbey, Patrick M. Bird No Comments
The Golden Age of Bacteriology: Discovering the Unknown in a Farm-to-Market Food Supply.
The last quarter of the 19th Century was both horrific and exciting. The world had just emerged from four decades of epidemic in cholera, typhoid fever and other enteric diseases for which no cause was known. Thus, the great scientific minds of Europe sought to find understanding. Robert Koch integrated Pasteur’s Germ Theory in 1861 with the high technology of the day: Mathematical optics and the first industrialized compound microscopes (Siebert, Leiss, 1877), heterocycle chemistry, high-purity solvents (i.e., formaldehyde), availability of engineered glass suitable as microscope slides and precision-molded parts such as tubes and plates in 1877, and industrialized agar production from seaweed in Japan in 1860. The enduring fruit of Koch’s technology integration tour de force is well known: Dye staining of bacteria for sub-micron microscopy, the invention of 13 cm x 1 cm culture tubes and the invention of the “Petri” dish coupled to agar-enriched culture media. Those technologies not only launched “The Golden Age of Bacteriology” but also guided the entire field of analytical microbiology for two lifetimes, becoming bedrock of 20th Century food safety regulation (the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act in 1938) and well into the 21st century with FSMA.
Learn more about technologies in food safety testing at the Food Labs / Cannabis Labs Conference | June 2–4, 2020 | Register now!Blockchain Microbiology: Managing the Known in an International Food Supply Chain.
If Koch were to reappear in 2020 and were presented with a manual of technical microbiology, he would have little difficulty recognizing the current practice of cell fixation, staining and microscopy, or the SOPs associated with fluid phase enrichment culture and agar plate culture on glass dishes (still named after his lab assistant). The point to be made is that the analytical plate culture technology developed by Koch was game changing then, in the “farm-to-market” supply chain in Koch’s hometown of Berlin. But today, plate culture still takes about 24 to 72 hours for broad class indicator identification and 48 to 96 hours for limited species level identification of common pathogens. In 1880, life was slow and that much time was needed to travel by train from Paris to Berlin. In 2020, that is the time needed to ship food to Berlin from any place on earth. While more rapid tests have been developed such as the ATP assay, they lack the speciation and analytical confidence necessary to provide actionable information to food safety professionals.
It can be argued that leading up to 2020, there has been an significant paradigm shift in the understanding of microbiology (genetics, systems based understanding of microbial function), which can now be coupled to new Third Industrial Age technologies, to make the 2020 international food supply chain safer.
We Are Not in 1880 Anymore: The Time has Come to Move Food Safety Testing into the 21st Century.
Each year, there are more than 48 million illnesses in the United States due to contaminated food.1 These illnesses place a heavy burden on consumers, food manufacturers, healthcare, and other ancillary parties, resulting in more than $75 billion in cost for the United States alone.2 This figure, while seemingly staggering, may increase in future years as reporting continues to increase. For Salmonella related illnesses alone, an estimated 97% of cases go unreported and Listeria monocytogenes is estimated to cause about 1,600 illnesses each year in the United States with more than 1,500 related hospitalizations and 260 related deaths.1,3 As reporting increases, food producers and regulatory bodies will feel an increased need to surveil all aspects of food production, from soil and air, to final product and packaging. The current standards for pathogenic agriculture and environmental testing, culture-based methods, qPCR and ATP assays are not able to meet the rapid, multiplexed and specificity required to meet the current and future demands of the industry.
At the DNA level, single cell level by PCR, high throughput sequencing, and microarrays provide the ability to identify multiple microbes in less than 24 hours with high levels of sensitivity and specificity (see Figure 1). With unique sample prep methods that obviate enrichment, DNA extraction and purification, these technologies will continue to rapidly reduce total test turnaround times into the single digit hours while simultaneously reducing the costs per test within the economics window of the food safety testing world. There are still growing pains as the industry begins to accept these new molecular approaches to microbiology such as advanced training, novel technology and integrated software analysis.
It is easy to envision that the digital data obtained from DNA-based microbial testing could become the next generation gold standard as a “system parameter” to the food supply chain. Imagine for instance that at time of shipping of a container, a data vector would be produced (i.e., time stamp out, location out, invoice, Listeria Speciation and/or Serovar discrimination, Salmonella Speciation and/or Serovar discrimination, refer toFigure 1) where the added microbial data would be treated as another important digital attribute of the load. Though it may seem far-fetched, such early prototyping through the CDC and USDA has already begun at sites in the U.S. trucking industry, based on DNA microarray and sequencing based microbial testing.
Given that “Third Industrial Revolution” technology can now be used to make microbial detection fast, digital, internet enabled and culture free, we argue here that molecular testing of the food chain (DNA or protein based) should, as soon as possible, be developed and validated to replace culture based analysis.
Scallan, E., Hoekstra, R. M., Angulo, F. J., Tauxe, R. V., Widdowson, M. A., Roy, S. L., … Griffin, P. M. (2011). Foodborne illness acquired in the United States–major pathogens. Emerging infectious diseases, 17(1), 7–15. doi:10.3201/eid1701.p11101
Scharff, Robert. (2012). Economic Burden from Health Losses Due to Foodborne Illness in the United States. Journal of food protection. 75. 123-31. 10.4315/0362-028X.JFP-11-058.
Mead, P. S., Slutsker, L., Dietz, V., McCaig, L. F., Bresee, J. S., Shapiro, C., … Tauxe, R. V. (1999). Food-related illness and death in the United States. Emerging infectious diseases, 5(5), 607–625. doi:10.3201/eid0505.990502
Unfortunately, alcoholic beverages are also prone to fraud involving the addition of substances that can cause illness or death. This often happens at the local level, with the production of “moonshine” or other unlicensed spirits. Some of the substances used have included methanol, isopropyl alcohol and industrial-grade alcohol.
One notable incident from the 1980s had global implications and severe market effects. Diethylene glycol was added to Austrian wines, resulting in recalls around the world when the adulteration was detected. Fortunately, no illnesses or deaths were reported. Just a year later, methanol added to Italian wine caused both hospitalizations and deaths. More recently, incidents involving the addition of methanol to spirits have caused deaths in India, China and Malaysia.
Authentication and traceability for alcoholic beverages, and specifically wines, lend themselves to technology-enabled solutions such as blockchain. On a lighter note, take a look at some of the labels documented by reporters covering the wine market in China. In a high value marketplace such as the wine business, there is no end to creativity in labeling.
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