Tag Archives: blockchain

Doug MacDonald, Oracle Retail
Retail Food Safety Forum

To Protect Food Quality, Start With the Data

By Doug Macdonald
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Doug MacDonald, Oracle Retail

Last month, the FDA held a public meeting to discuss its New Era of Smarter Food Safety initiative, with a rallying call to create a more “digital, traceable and safer food system.”

FDA Deputy Commissioner for Food Policy and Response Frank Yiannas made it clear that the FDA is not replacing FSMA. Rather, the goal is to build on it, recognizing changes in the food industry over the last 10 years and the technologies available to tackle new challenges.

This isn’t surprising given continuing quality issues resulting in food recalls and shelf withdrawals. Last year, two major outbreaks of E. coli that were tied to consumption of romaine lettuce made a mark on industry perceptions, impacting customer trust, brand loyalty and the bottom line of companies involved were affected. Research by Allianz found recall costs could reach $10,000,000 for significant events.

To achieve the FDA’s goal of end-to-end traceability, the amount of information carried by every food item needs to increase, as will information about its location and condition in the supply chain. Grocers are at the sharp end of the food chain, meaning everything the FDA is proposing will impact them. As well as being merchandisers, they are brand-owners in their own right. They work directly with farmers and growers, they are directly involved in food safety, storage and distribution, and they feel the impact of recalls more than most. Unlike others in the food chain, they interact with consumers daily. This is important to note, since consumers are expecting communication on recalls immediately. In a recent study of more than 15,800 global consumers, 66% of respondents noted that they expect immediate notification of a product recall and another 28% stated they expect notification within a week.1 Furthermore, 88% said if a retailer immediately informed them of an issue, they would be more likely or slightly likely to trust them. The study also found that only 16% of consumers completely trust the product information provided to them from retailers today. In short, the impact of recalls extends far beyond the empty store shelf, and gives the industry even more reason to strive for safety.

High-Tech Next Steps

The FDA plans to publish a strategic blueprint early in 2020 of planned actions to meet its goal, but food brands and grocers need not wait to act. Proven technologies like brand compliance solutions, combined with emerging blockchain track and trace solutions and Internet of Things (IoT) sensors can add new depth and detail to traceability in the food supply chain, and these new technologies are already helping grocers and retailers keep consumers safe.

As retailers have sought a better means to track supply chain movements, blockchain technology has emerged as a potential way forward. Originally developed to manage financial transactions involving cryptocurrency, blockchain has proven to be capable of providing a verifiable record of the movement of goods through a supply chain. In fact, one major retailer has been piloting blockchain for more than a year and has already proven its value on produce items, cutting traceability times from more than a week to a matter of seconds. Some want to go even further and use IoT sensors to monitor the condition (e.g., temperature) of food products in the supply chain. Together, blockchain can help trace the path a product took through the supply chain and IoT can monitor the environmental conditions en route, providing a more cohesive picture of its supply chain journey.

But while supporting a few simple products with one ingredient and a one-step supply chain, such as fruits or vegetables, is one thing, scaling to address the needs of the average private brand retailer—now handling more than 10,000 active products from 2,000 production sites globally—is another. Managing the complexity of a product like tiramisu or a ready-made meal with dozens of ingredients, all coming from different sources, needs a different approach. To address the complexity, many are turning to brand compliance solutions—trusted, real-time repositories of information spanning the entire supply chain. For example, those using brand compliance solutions now have complete visibility of the ingredients in their private label products, helping them ensure labeling accuracy and transparency for consumers. Brand compliance tools also bring improved visibility of the food supply chain, enabling them to verify the status of manufacturing sites and respond quickly to food quality issues.

This combination of detailed product and supplier information makes brand compliance a foundational enabler for any blockchain/IoT-based initiative to improve supply chain visibility and traceability. For example, using brand compliance solutions, grocers can:

  • Confirm the ethical compliance of the supply chain at the point of selection or review, while using blockchain/IoT to monitor the ongoing conformance to these standards
  • Validate shelf life claims during formulation, while blockchain/IoT monitors logistical movement and environments to optimise products’ freshness
  • Record products’ formulation and ingredients to ensure safety, legal compliance and labeling accuracy, with blockchain/IoT monitoring the ongoing conformance to these standards
  • Rapidly identify potential risks across the entire formulation and supply chain, while tracking the affected batches to stores using blockchain and IoT

This convergence of static factual data (e.g., formulation, nutrition and allergens) linked to near real-time traceability and checking offers grocers confidence in the data and supports the consumer’s confidence of an actual product in their basket.

Looking Ahead

It seems clear that the food business is moving in the same direction as airlines and banks and becoming much more data driven. For grocers looking to keep pace, they will need to:

  • Treat data as a core competency. This means hiring information experts, investing for the future, and using data to identify ways to deliver better, safer products.
  • Create a customer-centric value promise. Grocers must go beyond regulatory compliance and use data to improve consumer transparency, support ethical sourcing initiatives, expand sustainable packaging and speed innovation.
  • Go above and beyond. Rather than waiting for FDA direction or simply complying with requirements, brands should take matters into their own hands, hold themselves to high markers and get started now.

In the future, improving the way that we manage the food supply chain is not just about how well we work with trucks and warehouses; it’s about how use information. The FDA’s initiative makes a clear statement that now is the time to modernize our food supply chains. As we look ahead to a new decade, the industry can come together to improve food safety and protect consumers, and we need not wait for the FDA’s blueprint or even the new year to get started.

Reference

  1. Setting the Bar: Global Customer Experience Trends 2019. (2019). Oracle Retail. Retrieved from https://go.oracle.com/LP=86024.
John McPherson, rfxcel
FST Soapbox

End-to-End Supply Chain Traceability Starts with High-Quality Data

By John McPherson
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John McPherson, rfxcel

End-to-end traceability technology across the food and beverage (F&B) supply chain has many benefits for companies at all nodes of the chain, not least of which is the ability to act to prevent problems such as irreversible damage, loss, and theft. For these technologies to best deliver on their promise, however, they need standardized and quality-assured data. F&B supply chain stakeholders need to take steps to achieve effective data management to truly take advantage of the benefits of traceability and real-time monitoring technologies.

Since FSMA was introduced in 2011, actors across the F&B supply chain have had to change their behavior. Prior to FSMA, companies tended to react to events; today, proactive and preemptive measures are the norm. This is in line with what the legislation was designed to do: Encourage the prevention of foodborne illness instead of responding after their occurrance.

F&B manufacturers and distributors rely on technology to help predict potential obstacles and mitigate issues along their supply chains. But expressing a desire to embrace technologies such as real-time monitoring solutions and predictive analytics isn’t enough to achieve ultimate supply chain efficiency. Only by taking the necessary steps can companies get on track to ensure results.

Any company that is thinking about deploying a traceability solution has a lot to consider. Foremost, data must be digitized and standardized. This might seem challenging, especially if you’re starting from scratch, but it can be done with appropriate planning.

Let’s examine what F&B companies stand to gain by adopting new, innovative technologies and how they can successfully maximize data to achieve end-to-end supply chain traceability.

New Technologies Hold Huge Potential for F&B Supply Chains

The advantages of adopting new technologies far outweigh the time and effort it takes to get up and running. To smooth the process, F&B companies should work with solution providers that offer advisory services and full-service implementation. The right provider will help define your user requirements and create a template for the solution that will help ensure product safety and compliance. Furthermore, the right provider will help you consider the immediate and long-term implications of implementation; they’ll show you how new technologies “future-proof” your operations because they can be designed to perform and adapt for decades to come.

Burgeoning technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI) and blockchain are driving end-to-end traceability solutions, bridging the gap between different systems and allowing information to move seamlessly through them.

For example, real-time tracking performed by IoT-enabled, item-level sensors allows companies to detect potential damage or negative events such as theft. These devices monitor and send updates about a product’s condition (e.g., temperature, humidity, pressure, motion and location) while it is in transit. They alert you as soon as something has gone wrong and give you the power to take action to mitigate further damage.

This is just one example of how data from a fully implemented real-time, end-to-end traceability platform can yield returns almost immediately by eliminating blind spots, identifying bottlenecks and threats, and validating sourcing requirements. Such rich data can also change outcomes by, for example, empowering you to respond to alerts, intercept suspect products, extend shelf life, and drive continuous improvement.

As for AI technologies, they use data to learn and predict outcomes without human intervention. Global supply chains are packed with diverse types of data (e.g., from shippers and suppliers, information about regulatory requirements and outcomes, and public data); when combined with a company’s internal data, the results can be very powerful. AI is able to identify patterns through self-learning and natural language, and contextualize a single incident to determine if a larger threat can be anticipated or to make decisions that increase potential. For example, AI can help automate common supply chain processes such as demand forecasting, determine optimal delivery routes, or eliminate unforeseeable threats.

Blockchain has garnered a lot of buzz this year. As a decentralized and distributed data network, it’s a technology that might help with “unknowns” in your supply chain. For example, raw materials and products pass through multiple trading partners, including suppliers, manufacturers, distributors, carriers and retailers, before they reach consumers, so it can be difficult to truly know—and trust—every partner involved in your supply chain. The immutable nature of blockchain data can build trust and secure your operations.

To date, many F&B companies have been hesitant to start a blockchain initiative because of the capital risks, complexity and time-to-value cost. However, you don’t have to dive in head-first. You can start with small pilot programs, working with just a few stakeholders and clearly defining pilot processes. If you choose the right solution provider, you can develop the right cultural shift, defining governance and business models to meet future demands.

To summarize, new technologies are not disruptive to the F&B industry. If you work with an experienced solution provider, they will be constructive for the future. Ultimately, it’s worth the investment.

So how can the F&B industry start acting now?

How to Achieve End-to-End Traceability

Digitize Your Supply Chain. We live in a digital world. The modern supply chain is a digitized supply chain. To achieve end-to-end traceability, every stakeholder’s data must be digitized. It doesn’t matter how big your company is—a small operation or a global processor—if your data isn’t digitized, your supply chain will never reach peak performance.

If you haven’t begun transitioning to a digitalized supply chain, you should start now. Even though transforming processes can be a long journey, it’s worth the effort. You’ll have peace of mind knowing that your data is timely and accurate, and that you can utilize it to remain compliant with regulations, meet your customer’s demands, interact seamlessly with your trading partners, and be proactive about every aspect of your operations. And, of course, you’ll achieve true end-to-end supply chain traceability.

Standardize Your Data. As the needs of global F&B supply chains continue to expand and become more complex, the operations involved in managing relevant logistics also become more complicated. Companies are dealing with huge amounts of non-standardized data that must be standardized to yield transparency and security across all nodes of the supply chain.

Many things can cause inconsistencies with data. Data are often siloed or limited. Internal teams have their own initiatives and unique data needs; without a holistic approach, data can be missing, incomplete or exist in different systems. For example, a quality team may use one software solution to customize quality inspections and manage and monitor remediation or investigations, while a food safety team may look to a vendor management platform and a supply chain or operations team may pull reports from an enterprise resource planning (ERP) system to try and drive continuous improvement. Such conflict between data sources is problematic—even more so when it’s in a paper-based system.

Insights into your supply chain are only as good as the data that have informed them. If data (e.g., critical tracking events) aren’t standardized and quality-assured, companies cannot achieve the level and quality of information they need. Data standards coming from actors such as GS1 US, an organization that standardizes frameworks for easy adoption within food supply chains, can help with this.

There are many solutions to ensure data are standardized and can be shared among different supply chain stakeholders. With recent increases in recalls and contamination issues in the United States, the need for this level of supply chain visibility and information is even more critical.

Data Security. Data security is crucial for a successful digital supply chain with end-to-end traceability, so you must plan accordingly—and strategically. You must ensure that your data is safe 24/7. You must be certain you share your data with only people/organizations who you know and trust. You must be protected against hacks and disruptions. Working with the right solution provider is the best way to achieve data security.

Incentive Structures. Incentives to digitize and standardize data are still lacking across some parts of the F&B supply chain, increasing the chances for problems because all stakeholders are not on the same page.

Companies that continue to regard adopting traceability as a cost, not an investment in operations and brand security, will most likely do the minimum from both fiscal and regulatory standpoints. This is a strategic mistake, because the benefits of traceability are almost immediate and will only get bigger as consumers continue to demand more transparency and accuracy. Indeed, we should recognize that consumers are the driving force behind these needs.

Being able to gather rich, actionable data is the key to the future. Industry leaders that recognize this and act decisively will gain a competitive advantage; those that wait will find themselves playing catch-up, and they may never regain the positions they’ve lost. We can’t overstate the value of high-quality digitized and standardized data and the end-to-end traceability it fuels. If companies want to achieve full visibility and maximize their access to information across all nodes of their supply chains, they must embrace the available technologies and modernize their data capabilities. By doing so, they will reap the benefits of a proactive and predictive approach to the F&B supply chain.

Laura Nelson, Alchemy

Changing Consumer Preferences and Employee Compliance Training Driving Industry Evolution

By Maria Fontanazza
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Laura Nelson, Alchemy

The food industry is undergoing considerable change, especially as consumers become increasingly more vocal about their preferences and concerns, and as technology improvement and adoption plays a larger role in the conversation. In a recent Q&A with Food Safety Tech, Laura Dunn Nelson, vice president of food safety at Alchemy, shares her thoughts about current industry trends and how they are impacting food companies, where more help is needed, as well as ways in which companies can help advance food safety culture internally.

Food Safety Tech: The food industry is rapidly evolving. What are some of the trends you’re seeing and are these posing different challenges to food manufacturers?

Laura Dunn Nelson: The food industry is rapidly evolving in three key areas: Who produces our food, the variety of our food, and how consumers access our food.

As consumers continue to shift their food preferences toward an increase in healthy ingredients, locally sourced products, and clean labels, companies in turn continue to innovate and reformulate. Mergers and acquisitions continue as larger companies look to partner with niche companies that are focused on products marketed to the health-conscious consumer. Companies like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat are expanding rapidly, reaching both vegans and meat eaters in the United States and expanding into international markets. Ever-changing consumer preferences create challenges for the industry to accelerate their research and development processes in order to remain competitive in the marketplace.

Changes in product formulas and increases in product lines create the need for new ingredient procurement, changes in production schedules, and new operating procedures. There has been a proliferation of start-up companies using CBD as an ingredient for food and beverages despite the lagging food safety regulations forcing some city and state regulators like New York City to create their own ban of CBD products. As the FDA explores future regulations, producers and consumers are left to determine the safety of these products.

Home delivery of food continues to be a hot trend as the market continues to grow for companies like UberEats, Grubhub, retailers and foodservice companies like Domino’s Pizza where you can Tweet your pizza order. The home delivery service area presents new considerations for food safety including monitoring appropriate product temperatures.

Finally, discussion around blockchain technology continues to gain prominence as companies work to develop transparency within their supply chain. For many companies, this will translate into a significant shift in technology adoption and a move away from disparate data sources and therefore an investment in not only the technology but in revising their procurement processes.

Laura Nelson, Alchemy
Laura Nelson is vice president of food safety at Alchemy and currently serves as the vice-chair of the Food Safety Culture Professional Development Group (PDG) for IAFP.

FST: What are the areas in which you feel companies need a bit more guidance?

Nelson: How we effectively train our employees to ensure learning and comprehension is paramount to our success in the future. IBM Institute for Business Value recently completed their study “The Enterprise Guide to Closing the Skills Gap,” and noted “120 million workers in the world’s biggest economies may need to be retrained as a result of artificial intelligence (AI) and automation in the workplace.” Reskilling will be the new norm as new technologies and automation of equipment disrupt the current state.

Deloitte noted that “reinventing the way people learn” was the number one trend in the 2019 Global Human Capital Trends Report. Many companies are focused almost exclusively on mandatory compliance training and conducting the training the same way they have for years. Typically, orientation food safety training is provided during the employee’s first week of work and annual refreshers are given every year. In the Global Food Safety Training Survey that Alchemy provides to the global industry with Campden BRI, we consistently find that 67% of responding QA managers report that employees do not follow their food safety programs, despite their food safety training. Unfortunately, the emphasis on food safety is often relegated to that one day a year of refresher training with little reinforcement the remaining 364 days of the year. The ‘noise’ of competing priorities of production and customer expectations often distracts employees from their food safety responsibilities.

Some companies still define training as classroom training when, in fact, employees are being trained each and every day by their supervisors and peers. Companies that put additional emphasis in not only their training but validation of training through observations of employees’ food safety behaviors achieve higher food safety compliance. The power of two-way conversations between the employee and the supervisor as a coach creates an environment of communication and trust.

Alchemy worked with independent researchers to determine the effect of active coaching with prescribed behavior feedback on the plant floor. The results were conclusive: every facility included in the study revealed a 38% improvement in aligned employee behaviors.

Ultimately, companies need to evaluate their current learning organization for effectiveness and focus on job competencies and their ongoing assessment of compliant employee behaviors.

FST: What maturity level are you seeing in the industry related to food safety culture and the related implementation of best practices?

Nelson: The food industry is still relatively new to the concept of a mature food safety culture, and even how to define that. The industry focus of this topic has largely been driven by efforts within the GFSI community, particularly with the publication of the position paper “A Culture of Food Safety.” Pioneers in food safety culture research, like Dr. Lone Jespersen, and emerging training assessment tools are working toward pushing these newer concepts to the mainstream of our industry.

As with many important constructs, the QA/QC team is typically tasked with introducing this concept to their organization, defining their company’s level of food safety culture maturity, and establishing a continuous improvement plan. This is a tough ask from individuals who typically have a technical education background with little experience in behavioral science. To address these challenges, there are a growing number of consultants, books, and resources to help define a company’s food safety culture maturity and establish improvement strategies.

To help frame the benefits of a mature culture, a recent publication by Lone Jespersen et al, “The Impact of Maturing Food Safety Culture and a Pathway to Economic Gain,” notes the value of a mature food safety culture in reducing the cost of poor quality and food safety risks. Research indicates that many companies are currently in mid-maturity of their food safety culture. Suggested best practices to help an organization mature their food safety culture include:

  1. Foster cross-company ownership of food safety.
  2. Move from compliance driven operations to risk reduction through continuous improvement.
  3. Improve engagement skills of technical staff.

The first step is an assessment to understand the company’s unique performance gaps, either through an internal review or an external assessment. Once the specific gaps are identified, companies can develop their food safety culture improvement plan and execute. It’s helpful to conduct a reassessment over time to ensure the established improvement strategies are successful.

The effort can be challenging but research confirms that a more mature food safety culture will deliver improved food safety performance of food safety behaviors, improved product quality, and a reduction in food safety risks.

Bob Burrows, Chainvu
FST Soapbox

Five Steps To Overcome the Catch-22 Dilemma Of Blockchain Adoption In Your Food Supply Chain

By Bob Burrows
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Bob Burrows, Chainvu

Have you ever heard the saying, “It takes a village to raise a child”? This saying can easily be adapted to blockchain in the food supply chain, only it would say, “It takes a village to do blockchain successfully.”

Blockchain, by definition, requires the collaboration and consensus of all of its participants. If you look at a commonly accepted definition, blockchain is a sequence of consensually verified transaction blocks chained together, with each of the supply chain members as an equal owner of the same transaction data.

In the food supply chain context, this means that all supply chain participants—from the farmer/grower to the retail store and, in some scenarios, even the end consumer—have to be part of the blockchain or it will fail.

But therein lies the problem.

The Blockchain Catch-22 Adoption Dilemma

While blockchain has the potential to revolutionize the food industry (e.g., the way we handle food recalls), it puts innovators in today’s complex food supply chains in an awkward Catch-22 dilemma.

Unless you are Walmart or another equally big force in the food industry with the buying power to demand that your suppliers adopt blockchain, you cannot implement blockchain successfully without your entire supply chain joining you. But oftentimes, your partners (and sometimes your management) require the commitment of all others jumping on the blockchain bandwagon.

While this situation could feel intimidating, those obstacles are usually easily overcome with the right arguments presented in a sound business case. I want to share with you five tried-and-true steps to get even the most reluctant technophobic supply chain member excited about blockchain and ready to sign on.

1. Clearly Outline Risks Across the Entire Supply Chain

One of the biggest (and most expensive) mistakes companies make when adopting blockchain is to adopt a new technology purely for the sake of it. Therefore, the starting point for any negotiations should be to outline the real business problems you are trying to solve. Put yourself in the shoes of your partners’ management and explain the problems from their perspective.

But don’t try to boil the ocean—just focus on two or three main issues that could either have disastrous (as in business operation/reputation-destroying) consequences or become extremely costly issues. Additionally, you could include a short list of secondary issues to preempt questions about other concerns.

For example, facing a food safety incident and the associated food recalls could be your primary issues. Secondary issues might be product integrity and spoilage (due to the long transit times and possible temperature fluctuations along the way), compliance with government regulations regarding cost and resources, and the consumers’ demand for transparency and traceability.

2. Calculate the Cost of Doing Nothing

Once you have identified the biggest risks, it’s time to put some numbers on paper.
Let’s stay with the example of food safety and recalls. According to the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the average food recall in the United States costs businesses $30–99 million, which only includes direct costs from retrieval and disposal of recalled items without taking additional expenses for lawsuits, reputational damages and sales losses into account.

What would a recall scenario look like for your company, and what costs would be associated with it? What does your liability management for this scenario look like across the entire supply chain? Walk through the scenario step-by-step and put down realistic numbers. Be sure you can back it up with real data at any point in time.

3. Explain the Proposed Solution (Without Getting Too Technical)

Now that you have outlined the biggest risks and walked them through the numbers, it is time to present your proposed solution. When doing so, keep in mind that most people who are not very familiar with blockchain think immediately of Bitcoin and cryptocurrency—including the hype, unpredictability and hacks.

Rather than leading with technical explanations, try to first explain your solution from a business perspective without using the word “blockchain.” Frank Yiannas, the former Walmart vice president of food safety and now deputy commissioner, food policy and response for the FDA, once described blockchain as “the equivalent of FedEx tracking for food.” This is the level of technicality you want to hit.

Once you have buy-in for the overall approach, you can lay out the technical details including how blockchain, IoT-enabled sensors and smart contracts fit into this picture.

4. Showcase Lowest Hanging Fruit First, Then Define Long-Term Benefits & Soft Savings

Pat yourself on the back—you have just overcome the biggest hurdle in the process. Now it is time to bring the deal home by laying out the quick wins (low-hanging fruit) and the long-term benefits.

If you implement a blockchain solution paired with smart sensors to constantly monitor your product’s temperature, shock impact, moisture and location, a huge quick win could be the ability to immediately identify any potentially spoiled or compromised items. All members of the supply chain could get an instant notification if an exception occurs.

While listing the immediate benefits and calculating potential savings is crucial for getting buy-in, the long-term benefits are also important. For example, you could point out that consumers (especially millennials) are willing to spend more money on brands that offer more transparency, brands they can trust (e.g., authenticity of extra virgin olive oil), and brands they can trace back to their origins (provenance).

In addition, there are also efficiency gains through blockchain. When speaking to your own management, point out the ability to improve your own operations due to the increased level of automation, as well as the opportunity for improving the overall supply chain efficiencies by collecting data across the supply chain.

Just be sure that your benefits correlate with the problems you had outlined initially.

5. Have a Detailed Adoption Roadmap

Last but not least, be prepared to have a detailed adoption road map. This is crucial, as it allows you to take their enthusiasm to the next level. All the other steps are for nought if this isn’t put into action. Go the extra mile to set your project up for success and map out the key details, including:

  • Proposed project timelines (e.g., onboarding phase, trial start and end dates, decision deadlines),
  • Must-meet milestones and key performance indicators
  • Expected road blocks and how you will address them

While this puts extra responsibility on your team, it allows you to keep driving the project forward and at least bring it to a trial or pilot stage that will give you more tangible benefits.

Conclusion

Whether you follow these tips step-by-step or you pick and choose, I would like you to take one thing away from reading this: While there is tremendous potential in blockchain, don’t implement it purely for the sake of catchy headlines or bragging rights! To get your supply chain partners and executive management on board, you must tie the implementation to relevant business use cases to achieve tangible results.

Blockchain

GS1 Discussion Group Seeks Education About Blockchain Without the Hype

By Maria Fontanazza
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Blockchain

There are two key points that Kevin Otto of GS1 wants people to understand about blockchain: It is not a traceability solution in itself, and data standards are critical. Otto is the lead for the GS1 US Cross-Industry Blockchain Discussion Group (launched in November 2018) and the Foodservice GS1 US Standards Initiative at GS1 US. Recently the blockchain buzz has been transforming into a more realistic conversation about the future role of the technology in supply chain visibility and the necessary steps to achieve interoperability. In a Q&A with Food Safety Tech, Otto shares what GS1 is trying to accomplish with its relatively new blockchain discussion group, the important role of data standards, and supply chain traceability.

Food Safety Tech: Can you explain the role and goals of GS1’s blockchain discussion group?

Kevin Otto, GS1 US
Kevin Otto, lead for the GS1 US Cross-Industry Blockchain Discussion Group and the Foodservice GS1 US Standards Initiative at GS1 US.

Kevin Otto: It’s a cross industry discussion group, so it’s a bit of departure from how we typically approach industry with verticals such as foodservice or retail/grocery. For the blockchain discussion group, we decided to bring different industries together under one umbrella—leading companies within foodservice, retail/grocery, healthcare, and apparel/merchandise—to discuss the use cases and implementations for blockchain. The common thread among so many industries was a focus on improving supply chain visibility. We thought it was a good opportunity to see where we could get alignment and be industry agnostic around how blockchain can be leveraged.

There were a few overarching goals that we were trying to accomplish with the group: The first thing we heard from industry is they’d really like some education without the hype. There seemed to be some confusion with some industry partners that blockchain itself is a traceability solution, which it isn’t. We know that a blockchain implementation is only as good as the data that is feeding it. We want to help various players in these industries clear up confusion, [and understand] that there’s still a need for data standards in order for blockchain to produce meaningful results. As a neutral not-for-profit organization, we thought we’d be a good place to provide education and industry insight.

In terms of other things that this group is trying to do: One thing that we thought was abundantly clear was the need to identify and align on the necessary core standards and master data elements to even approach a trading partner with a supply chain visibility proof of concept leveraging blockchain. If you want to talk about supply chain visibility with your trading partners and you’re not capturing and sharing any standardized data about how product moves through your supply chains today, there’s really no way you can even begin to discuss blockchain with them.

This goes back to the confusion in the industry where people think they can adopt “blockchain” and therefore have traceability. Supply chain visibility is a priority across all of these industries. Now is the time for them to decide what separate pieces of traceability data and master data are needed in order to have these discussions with trading partners. The discussion group will be putting out guidance on what is specifically needed for a blockchain traceability proof of concept.

Another major thing industry had asked from us: A knowledge management center, which is an interactive space where participants in the industry discussion group can post articles, ask probing questions, and interact with people outside of their four walls, and discuss progress of their own proofs of concept. We have been developing this tool over the last couple of months and will launch this summer.

FST: Are there additional the concerns about the use and implementation of blockchain technology?

Otto: There’s a lot of investment that goes into blockchain technology, and we saw a lot of people jumping in with both feet before understanding what the benefit really was to their organization. It’s almost as though blockchain was being positioned as a solution for all supply chain problems. We thought that being able to provide some of this education and insight from industry would help to elevate some of those issues.

I think one of the other concerns that plays a role is interoperability. When you talk about the ability for these different blockchain ecosystems to effectively speak to one another, there’s certainly a need for data standards in that space. There isn’t going to be just one blockchain solution; there are going to be several different players out there and they will need to leverage standards as one step toward interoperability. Our perspective is that we have companies that are already leveraging GS1 standards today through other data sharing mechanisms, and there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. These standards already exist; let’s make sure we’re using what’s been tested over time, which is a key step in helping ecosystems speak to one another.

FST: How is the use of digitized data provoking a shift in supply chain processes?

Otto: There are still smaller players within the food space who are leveraging paper-based data exchange with their trading partners. As the supply chain grows increasingly more global, the idea that you can have effective track and trace, for example, when the only thing you know is where a product was immediately before it came to you and immediately where it went after it left just doesn’t work anymore. It’s too slow and, quick frankly, dangerous if you have that much manual interaction and that much reliance on paper-based processes in a global supply chain. Certainly we’re seeing more trading partners make digital data exchange one of the prerequisites of their sourcing. The supply chain has gotten so complex that it just isn’t realistic to expect people to play “whisper down the lane” in figuring out where their product went in the event of a recall.

And when you think about the impact of social media and how quickly a recall can become much bigger, it’s imperative that some of these companies within the food and retail industries make sure their processes are buttoned up and that they can communicate with their trading partners quickly, and pull that product out of the supply chain. I think we’re seeing companies saying, if you don’t have a mechanism to electronically exchange data, then we may have to take our business elsewhere.

FST: Talk about your thoughts related to traceability and the need for companies to “speak the same language”. Where are companies in this journey, and where do they need assistance?

Otto: Speaking the same language is imperative. The most sophisticated data sharing methods in the world are of very little use if I don’t understand the data being sent to me. There aren’t any manufacturers, retailers, operators, etc. in the food supply chain whose stated core competency is translating data from their trading partners. That’s why so many of these different companies are relying on GS1 standards—the global language of business—so they can focus on what they do best—providing high quality, safe products to their consumers

In terms of where companies are on this journey: It varies. There are companies that have been adopting standards for traceability for years, and there are always other companies being on-boarded. This is a marathon, not a sprint. The important thing to realize is that this is a business process, not a project. Food traceability is something we need to work at everyday. As we work with all these different companies, they’re increasingly saying that food safety isn’t a competitive advantage—it’s something we all need to do and we all benefit from.

Where assistance might be needed: The food service supply chain is large and complex. When looking at the tens of thousands of independent growers as you get further upstream in the supply chain, we work with other industry associations to make sure they understand our messaging and how GS1 standards can provide value for their business. The challenge is always going to be that if we want to get to farm-to-fork traceability, we have to make sure we are talking to all the independent farmers and growers that you just can’t simply call or talk to on a daily basis. We leverage partnerships to be our voice in those discussions so we can truly connect with the entire food supply chain. That will be a continuous ongoing effort.

Megan Nichols
FST Soapbox

Technology Tools Improving Food Safety

By Megan Ray Nichols
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Megan Nichols

To cap off a tumultuous year for foodborne illnesses, the end of 2018 saw a rather large E. coli outbreak that affected several different types of lettuce. In all, about 62 people got sick in the United States, with another 29 affected in Canada. The outbreak was traced back to a farm in California thanks to a specific DNA fingerprint in the E. coli. It started in a water reservoir and spread to the nearby crops.

Unfortunately, the event was only one of two separate incidents involving romaine lettuce last year. Another E.coli outbreak was traced back to a source in Arizona. Are these outbreaks more common than we realize? The CDC estimates that 48 million Americans fall ill each year from foodborne pathogens. Of those who get sick, 128,000 have to be hospitalized, and about 3,000 perish.

It’s clear that the industry as a whole needs to buckle down and find more effective solutions, not just for preventing outbreaks but also for mitigating damage when they happen. A new level of safety and management can be achieved with the help of many new, innovative technologies.

The following are some of the technology tools shaping the future of food safety and quality management fields.

Blockchain

As a result of the E. coli outbreak, Walmart implemented blockchain technology to track leafy greens and boost supply chain transparency. The systems and infrastructure is anticipated to be in place by the end of 2019.

Blockchain is a secure, digital ledger. It holds information about various transactions and data, all of which are carried out on the network. It’s called a blockchain because each data set within the network is a chunk or “block,” and they’re all linked to one another—hence the chain portion of the name. What this allows for is complete transparency throughout the supply chain, because you can track goods from their origin all the way to distribution and sale.

Each block is essentially a chunk of information, and when it’s entered into the chain, it cannot be altered, modified or manipulated. It’s simply there for viewing publicly. You cannot alter information contained within a single block without modifying the entire chain—which operates much like a peer-to-peer network and is split across many devices and servers.
This unique form of security establishes trust, accuracy and a clear representation of what’s happening. It allows a company to track contaminated foods along their journey, stopping them before they contaminate other goods or reach customers.

Infrared Heating

Thanks to the rising popularity of ready-to-eat meals, the industry is under pressure to adopt preservation and pasteurization methods. Particularly, they must be able to sanitize foods and package them with minimal exposure and bacteria levels. This practice allows them to stay fresh for longer and protects customers from potential foodborne illness.

Infrared heating is a method of surface pasteurization, and has been used for meats such as ham. Infrared lamps radiate heat at low temperatures, effectively killing surface bacteria and contaminants. The idea is to decontaminate or sanitize the surface of foods before final packaging occurs.

Industrial IoT and Smart Sensors

The food and beverage industry has a rather unique challenge with regard to supply chain operations. Food may be clean and correctly handled at the source with no traces of contamination, but it’s then passed on to a third party, which changes the game. Maybe a refrigerated transport breaks down, and the food within is thawed out. Perhaps a distributor doesn’t appropriately store perishable goods, resulting in serious contamination.

This transportation stage can be more effectively tracked and optimized with the help of modern IoT and smart, connected sensors. RFID tags, for instance, can be embedded in the packaging of foods to track their movements and various stats. Additional sensors can monitor storage temps, travel times, unexpected exposure, package tears and more.

More importantly, they’re often connected to a central data processing system where AI and machine learning platforms or human laborers can identify problematic changes. This setup allows supply chain participants to take action sooner in order to remedy potential problems or even pull contaminated goods out of the supply.

They can also help cut down on fraud or falsified records, which is a growing problem in the industry. Imagine an event where an employee says that a package was handled properly via forms or reporting tools, yet it was exposed to damaging elements. The implications of even simple fraud can be significant. Technology that automatically and consistently reports information—over manual entry—can help eliminate this possibility altogether.

Next-Generation Sequencing

NGS refers to a high-throughput DNA sequencing process that is now available to the food industry as a whole. It’s cheaper, more effective and takes a lot less time to complete, which means DNA and RNA sequencing is more accessible to food companies and suppliers now than it ever has been.

NGS can be used to assess and sequence hundreds of different samples at a time at rates of up to 25 million reads per experiment. What that means is that monitoring teams can accurately identify foodborne pathogens and contamination at the speed of the modern market. It is also a highly capable form of food safety measurement and is quickly replacing older, molecular-based methods like PCR.

Ultimately, NGS will lead to vastly improved testing and measurement processes, which can identify potential issues faster and in higher quantities than traditional methods. The food industry will be all the better and safer for it.

The Market Is Ever Evolving

While these technologies are certainly making a splash—and will shape the future of the food safety industry—they do not exist in a vacuum. There are dozens of other technologies and solutions being explored. It is important to understand that many new technologies could rise to the surface even within the next year.

The good news is that it’s all meant to improve the industry, particularly when it comes to the freshness, quality and health of the goods that consumers eat.

Blockchain

Promise of Blockchain Could Help Seafood Traceability, Unique Challenges Remain

By Maria Fontanazza
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Blockchain

As our conversation about the potential of blockchain continues at Food Safety Tech, we sat down with Thomas Burke, food traceability and safety scientist, Global Food Traceability Center (GFTC) at the Institute of Food Technologists, to discuss how ready the seafood industry is in the adoption of blockchain, more specifically as it relates to traceability.

Food Safety Tech: What are the current major issues in seafood traceability?
Thomas Burke: Some of the challenges are diversity in product, diversity in regulatory compliance, a hyper-globalized supply chain and variable technology adoption.

I always like to distinguish seafood traceability from other major food commodities for several different reasons. When thinking about traceability and devising traceability systems, you want to think about use cases. For most food commodities, food safety is usually top of mind; there’s also a regulatory compliance component. Seafood still has food safety as a high priority, but there are also issues with illegal and unreported fishing and fraudulent issues in the supply chain. When you’re thinking about devising a traceability system, you also have to consider different key data elements. For instance, in food safety, while location is important, the location is only really important for tracing back in the event of recalling product. In seafood traceability you’re looking at racing back to ascertain if it was caught in the right place with the right method at the right time. With this as context, you also want to think about the technological challenges and food operations wise such as the diversity of commodities in seafood—there’s diversity in species way more so than in poultry or produce. You also have very different geographic locations, different harvest methods (i.e., farmed, wild); because of the diversity of harvesting practices, there are other considerations to think about. There are some traceability service providers that rely on a constant internet connection, and that’s obviously not possible if you’re fishing on the high seas. You might have equipment for data collections that works really well in the field or in the food manufacturing environment, but it may not work under the harsh conditions of a boat or in aquaculture. So we end up seeing a great diversity of technological adoption. Especially further upstream when thinking about other small-scale fishers and smaller processors—they generally only do traceability for regulatory compliance, because they just don’t have the capital to invest in technologically sophisticated data collection management. And sometimes it’s not necessary for what they’re trying to achieve. So, we still see a lot of paper records, basic spreadsheet data management, and then it gets more complicated as you go down the supply chain. Larger processors and retailers will have more dedicated traceability systems.

FST: Where do you see blockchain entering the traceability process and what other technologies should be used in conjunction with blockchain?

Thomas Burke will present, “Blockchain won’t solve the food traceability challenge… but Interoperability and Data Standards will” at the 2019 Food Safety Supply Chain Conference | May 29 –30  Burke: One of the things that we’ve found in our work at the Global Food Traceability Center and with the global dialogue on seafood traceability [regarding] blockchain is that there’s a lot of interest and hype around the application itself, which helps draw in solution providers and developers that are interested in applying a new technology to a new use case.

Blockchain is a data sharing platform. So the technologies that it’s comparing itself to are FTP (file transfer protocol) and transferring data through an EDI (electronic data interchange). This is a new way of sharing data between supply chain partners that has some unique capabilities, some of which are very advantageous for seafood.

When I was talking earlier about how there is variable adoption of technologies (i.e., small harvesters or producers that use paper records or use minimal digital records), blockchain has the advantage that data hosting is shared and decentralized across the notes of the network. What that means is that a small producer doesn’t have to set up a dedicated server infrastructure in order to communicate with their supply chain partners, whereas that’s more of the case with EDI; even with FTP you’ll still have to set up some kind of formal relationship with your servers. What’s nice about blockchain is that in order to host information on that network, you just pay a small amount of the currency that the blockchain runs on. It’s a little bit different if you have a private or consortium blockchain, but the idea is with the open blockchain applications is that you only pay on a per transaction basis (data upload basis). The larger the network is, the cheaper that is to do. So over the month, it’s a lower cost for participants for hosting the shared ledger of updates.

There are also some other advantages: It’s immutable; once it’s on the blockchain it’s very difficult to corrupt that data. There are other components to the problem of data collection and the transportation of data, along with the product along the supply chain. You still need certain legs of that stool such as a global identifier that identifies the product as it goes through the supply chain and gets incorporated into other products; you also need to collect the related data that’s necessary to make your use case. There’s a balance between the data collection and the identification [i.e., fishermen might not want to reveal their best location]. Those all need to be part of the picture, in addition to novel data-sharing platforms such as blockchain. A big part of what GFTC is trying to do in the seafood space is gather industry and work with them to develop standards and best practices to ensure the same data is being collected at each point and that data is able to be transported with the product in an interoperable way that takes into account the diversity of technological adoption along the supply chain.

FST: What level of blockchain adoption do you see in the seafood industry? How prepared is the industry, including retailers?

Burke: As far as adoption: It depends. There are a few different aspects that depend on whether companies will invest in a blockchain solution or not. It depends on what their current adoption is and their market. Where we’re seeing a lot of interest in blockchain being used as a component of data sharing for traceability is in more niche products that have more straightforward supply chains, and they’re using traceability as a market differentiator for their product. Right now, in order to invest in blockchain, you need to devote a significant amount of staff time or invest in a service provider to devise the blockchain scheme that you’re going for. There are a lot of unanswered questions about the implementation of blockchain. There are major players using blockchain in other types of food supply chains, but those are generally very vertically integrated companies that have a lot of resources—both IT resources and monetary resources to devote to this early experimental stage. And that’s where I would see it start first. If there’s success in those more limited trials, then maybe larger multinational companies might have interest in using it as a linkage between some of the information systems.

The biggest challenge with large multinational seafood companies is they have a lot of subsidiaries. And when they have subsidiaries, they might use different ERP systems; they’re looking at ways to transport the data into those disparate systems. And with seafood, as with most food commodities, it’s a fairly low margin industry. So most companies are going to be fairly conservative in investing in a new technology until it’s really being seen as a proven and achievably implementable software solution. Larger companies are still seeing more traditional cloud hosting such as EDI as a viable option for data sharing in food traceability. But blockchain is being seen in those niche areas and as the technology becomes more proven, we’ll probably see greater adoption. There’s just still a lot of skepticism in the industry, and that’s with any new technology.

I will say with other technologies in seafood traceability, I am seeing quite a bit of promise in AI [artificial intelligence] data analytics and image processing technologies just because it’s very difficult to identify products, especially early up in the supply chain. Some of these new technologies in data processing are going to help streamline data collection and be able to process it into those key data elements that you’re looking for to achieve those traceability use cases. There’s been so much development of facial recognition technology in humans that similar algorithms could be used in labeling fish. Those are some of the other promising technologies. There are some [uses of] IoT devices and RFID but those still remain to be seen—they have implementation issues, because there are quite a few environmental interferences on water or in humidity-rich environments, especially when you’re thinking about radio frequency resistance/interference.

In seafood right now, most of the blockchain-oriented applications are in line with NGOs that are experimenting with the use of blockchain as a traceability tool—and those tend to be high-end products like tuna or crab using blockchain in limited use cases. It’s still very much in the piloting and early implementation.

FST: What are the top three advantages to using blockchain for seafood traceability?

Burke: 1. Immutability. Once you put transactions onto the blockchain, because of the way the architecture is set up, it’s really difficult to alter that record. Other data sharing platforms don’t have the advantage of a singular record.
2. Decentralization. Everyone has access to the same leger that can be shared in real time across a global supply chain. Most of the other data sharing platforms are emphasized in one-to-one communication, whereas blockchain is many-to-many.
3. Flexibility and interest from the development community. There’s a lot of creativity associated with blockchain applications right now. There are a lot of developers coming up with interesting ideas of how to maximize the architecture to work for food traceability applications. Because it has an economic structure where you are using tokens that are powering the data processing, you can potentially do interesting things with incentivizing inputting data into a traceability system and monetizing it. We’re exploring that in the global dialogue—looking to see how you can tie the value of traceability data upstream, because that will help incentivize the entire ecosystem. There have been limited trials with startups that have been looking at incentivizing data collection through blockchain.

FST: Where do you see blockchain headed in five years?
Burke: I don’t see the actual architectural idea of blockchain idea going away. It’s a fairly brilliant way of ensuring that valuable data isn’t double counted or deleted. It helps reduce some risk.

The next five years will depend on what the end retailers end up adopting. In western markets, more specifically North America, the retailers have a lot of leverage in what standards and best practices are kept and carried through. So it will depend a lot on those large end retailers and how comfortable they are in adopting blockchain, and the decisions that they make behind blockchain providers.

The largest seafood markets are China and Japan, so [adoption] more depends on what those retailers/customer bases are demanding versus what happens in North America just because the demand is so much stronger there. That will also drive the development of blockchain interfaces and will influence the adoption among smaller scale fishers, which is more of the tendency in East Asia. It’s a very open question. I think it will be influenced by decisions that governments make in East Asia regarding blockchain.

I would emphasize that the success of seafood traceability and food traceability in general will be very dependent on standards, and the development of commonly understood and accepted practices, and the way those data standards are collected. So you can have a robust blockchain platform, but if every supply chain partner doesn’t agree to collect the same data and identify it in a similar way that is interoperable, it still won’t work—even if you have the most advanced technology. There’s a human process of agreeing upon the same way that traceability data is gathered. Interoperability and standards are key, in addition to the new technologies.

Julie McGill, FoodLogiQ

Traceability from Within Starts with Assessing Capabilities

By Food Safety Tech Staff
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Julie McGill, FoodLogiQ

Consumers and industry alike want more transparency in the supply chain. In a Q&A with Food Safety Tech, Julie McGill, director of implementation and strategic accounts at FoodLogiQ explains how companies can prepare to meet the increased demands and how technology can help.

Food Safety Tech: In light of the recent outbreaks and recalls, there an increased focus on traceability. What should companies do to get ready?

Julie McGill, FoodLogiQ
With the increased focus on traceability, companies should start assessing their internal capabilities, says Julie McGill of FoodLogiQ.

Julie McGill: There is so much that companies can do today to prepare, and they can start by assessing their current capabilities. What problems are you trying to solve? Have you identified all of your products and locations with GS1 identifiers? Are you using GS1 identifiers in your systems?

Do you have a data quality program in place? Are you able to mark all of your cases with a GS1-128 barcodes? Can you scan barcodes at receiving? At delivery? Are you sending EDI messages to your trading partners?

Those with successful programs will tell you this is a marathon, not a sprint. Securing executive support, aligning internal teams and setting expectations with trading partners is key.

Having the ability to act swiftly and with precision and accuracy is a differentiator during a recall. Trading partners who have made the investment are able to understand where these affected items are in their supply chains in seconds. These programs require a solid program, disciplined approach to implementation, and ongoing monitoring and management of the data. Companies that have committed to implementing these standards are gaining a competitive advantage today, as they are ready to meet the mandates and requirements set by their trading partners.

Register to attend the complimentary web seminar, “Supply Chain Traceability: Using Technology to Address Challenges and Compliance” | May 14, 2019 | 1–4 pm ETFST: Is it actually possible to trace products to the source? Can we trace produce back to the field or fish back to the oceans?

McGill: Yes, it is possible to trace products back to the source. Growing consumer demands and regulatory requirements, such as FSMA and SIMP, have led to the need for more detailed information about food and its origins. To achieve this, it’s imperative that companies standardize business practices, product identification and item data to enable interoperability across solutions and systems.

There has been tremendous work done by industry stakeholders to address traceability. They’ve mapped their entire supply chains, identified the key data elements and critical tracking events to be captured to enable full chain traceability. GS1 US hosts initiatives in foodservice and retail grocery, plus there are a number of industry-run initiatives, including the Produce Traceability Initiative (PTI), Supply Chain Optimization (SCO2), and Global Dialogue for Seafood Traceability. Food industry partners agree that full chain traceability will be achieved through education, industry input, and the use of standards.

Track and Trace, traceability, supply chain
The Track + Trace platform allows trading partners to capture and share the movement of products across the supply chain. When there’s the need to run an investigation, data is stitched together to provide visualization so trading partners can effectively and efficiently take action. Screenshot courtesy of FoodLogiQ

FST: When talking about traceability, blockchain is part of many conversations today. How does it differ from existing solutions?

McGill: Blockchain is an emerging technology that offers a way for companies to transact with each other and share information in a secure manner. What makes blockchain unique is that it is a shared, immutable ledger that records all the transactions in chronological order that cannot be altered or deleted. While this approach holds promise on raising transparency in the food industry, there is much yet to be tested and validated on its real-world application within the food chain.

The most common use case for blockchain in the food industry has been traceability. As blockchain technology, solutions and use cases are evolving, industry partners have come together to discuss it’s capabilities and use. We host a Blockchain Consortium, bringing our members together to explore blockchain. Industry groups are coming together as well, such as GS1 US, who is hosting a cross-industry discussion group to help companies better understand the transformative qualities of blockchain, including the use of GS1 Standards.

Blockchain has also made clear the need for companies to automate their record keeping and traceability systems and to eliminate the manual, paper-based processes that often slow down the resolution of a food safety outbreak or issue.

Blockchain is not a “light switch” solution. What’s widely misunderstood is that in order to achieve full chain traceability, all partners across the supply chain will need to implement processes to capture and share this critical tracking event data.

FST: Additional comments are welcome.

McGill: Foodservice companies share common drivers and common goals which improve the reliability of product information, lower costs and reduce risk. There are numerous benefits that can be realized once you have access to accurate and complete traceability data, including:

  • Limiting the scope and costs of recalls
  • Quicker and more accurate product withdrawals
  • Full visibility across the supply chain
  • Speed to market
  • Improved business intelligence
  • Creates operational efficiencies
  • Enhanced inventory management
Kevin Payne, Zest Labs
FST Soapbox

2019 Food Safety and Transparency Trends

By Kevin Payne
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Kevin Payne, Zest Labs

When it comes to addressing food safety, did the industry really make any progress in 2018? In 2019, what new approaches or technologies can be successfully applied to prevent problems before they occur and minimize the consumer risk, minimize the market impact, and speed up the identification, isolation and recall of contaminated products?

Field-packed produce offers a unique challenge to the fresh food supply chain, as it is not processed and is not required to adhere to an FDA mandated HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points) process. It has been a challenge for field-packed produce suppliers to proactively identify or prevent contaminated produce from entering the supply chain. As a result, during serious contamination incidents, the reaction is to pull and destroy all suspect product from store shelves and supply chain. Due to the lack of data isolating the source of the contamination, this is the safest approach, but it’s costing the industry millions of dollars. Ultimately, our inability to prevent or quickly isolate these events causes confusion among consumers who don’t know who to trust or what is safe to eat, resulting in a prolonged market impact.

In response to the latest E. coli outbreak involving romaine lettuce, the industry has proposed a voluntary item-level label that reflects the harvest location and date, to help identify safe product to the consumer. At best, this is a stop-gap solution, as it burdens the consumer to identify safe product.

I work in the fresh produce supply chain industry. When I go to the grocery store, I examine the produce, noting the brand and various other factors. I was aware of the romaine problem and the voluntary labeling program, so I knew what to look for. But I’m an exception. Most consumers don’t know romaine lettuce is grown during the summer and fall in northern California and further south during the winter in regions that include Arizona and Mexico. Most consumers don’t know what the “safe date” for harvest really means—nor should they be required to know this information. They look to the industry to manage this. If we buy a car or microwave oven that is found to be unsafe, the manufacturer and the government are responsible for identifying the problem and recalling the product. Yet, in the produce industry, that responsibility seems to be moving to the retailer and consumer.

It’s an unfair burden, as the retailer and consumer do not have the necessary information to make a definitive judgement regarding food safety. The responsibility needs to be shared across the entire fresh food supply chain. Records about the produce need to be shared and maintained from harvest to retail.

Will 2019 be the year that we realize we can address this challenge proactively to improve the safety of our fresh food?

We need a new approach that leverages innovative technology to provide a more reliable solution. For example, irrigation water is often identified as a culprit in spreading bacteria. Yet even with regular testing of irrigation water, the results do not currently guarantee food safety. We see emerging technology that will make regular testing more reliable, accurate and affordable to facilitate more proactive management of the water supply. This will be a critical part of an overall solution for proactive produce food safety.

Blockchain technology has been hailed as a savior of food safety and traceability. Early in 2018, it was all the rage, as various sources claimed that, by using blockchain, recall times could be cut from days or weeks to seconds. But was this an oversimplification? Perhaps so, as this early hype faded by the middle of the year amidst the various food safety outbreaks that went unresolved. Then last August, Gartner, a  market analyst firm, declared that blockchain had moved into the “trough of disillusionment” on its 2018 Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies as a result of over-hyped expectations. The firm predicts that the technology may reach the “plateau of productivity” within the next decade. Can we wait another 10 years before being able to benefit from it? Should we?

We expect that blockchain trials will continue in 2019. But, while blockchain has shown promise in terms of being a secure and immutable data exchange, questions remain. What data about the produce will be entered into the blockchain? How is that data collected? Is the data validated? Bad, inaccurate or incomplete data makes blockchain relatively useless, or worse, as it undermines a trusted platform. Further, without broad agreement and adoption of data collection, blockchain can’t be successful.

For proactive management of food safety, we will also need to address both forward and backward supply chain traceability. One of the challenges realized from recent outbreaks is that it takes time to figure out what is happening. Identifying the source of the illness/outbreak isn’t easy. Once we identify a source (or multiple sources) of the contamination, blockchain—assuming that all of the necessary data has been collected—only helps to more quickly trace back produce to its origin. But, for growers, quickly understanding where all product shipped from a specific location or date is just as critical in understanding and minimizing consumer impact. Tracing product forward enables a grower to proactively inform retailers and restaurants that their product should be recalled.

Blockchain currently does not directly support this forward tracing, but can be augmented to do so. But blockchain can maintain a food safety data item, or items, that could quickly and reliably communicate product status at the pallet-level, providing instant food safety status to the current product owner, even if they didn’t have direct contact with the grower. As such, a hybrid blockchain approach, as espoused by ChainLink Research, is optimal for forward and backward traceability.

Equally important, we need to fully digitize the supply chain to enable blockchain. To make comprehensive data collection feasible, we need to automate data collection by utilizing IoT sensors at the pallet level, to properly reflect how distribution takes place through the supply chain. We need reliable data collection to properly reflect the location and condition of product distributed through a multi-tier distribution network. That level of product data visibility enables proactive management for food safety as well as quality and freshness— well beyond the current trailer-level monitoring that only monitors transit temperatures with no benefit to managing food safety. Effective data capture will define the next generation of fresh food management, as it embraces proactive food safety, quality and freshness management.

Goals for This Year

For 2019, our goals should be to embrace new approaches and technology that:

  1. Identify food contamination at its source and prevent contaminated food from ever entering the supply chain. We need to focus on developing new technologies that make this feasible and cost effective.
  2. Accurately and consistently track product condition and authenticity of fresh produce from the time it is harvested until it is delivered. IoT sensors and proactive fresh food supply chain management solutions provide this capability.
  3.  Make it cost-effective and practical for growers, suppliers and grocers to use solutions to improve the entire fresh food supply chain. If we make the process burdensome or without a reasonable ROI, implementation will lag, and the problems will persist. But if we demonstrate that these solutions offer value across the fresh food supply chain—through reduced waste and improved operational efficiency—growers, suppliers, shippers and grocers will embrace them.

Food Safety Vs. Blockchain: Who Wins?

By Maria Fontanazza
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The jury is still out on how (and if) blockchain can contribute to a safer food supply. Whether or not there is a clear understanding of the technology, and its potential and pitfalls, is up for debate as well. “What is blockchain? This is the number one question that people have,” said Darin Detwiler, director, regulatory affairs of food and food industry at Northeastern University, who led a panel of experts as they deliberated over this hot topic during the 2018 Food Safety Consortium.

“Blockchain levels the playing field where we can connect people, resources and organizations in ways we’ve never done before to harness new ways of extracting value,” said Nigel Gopie, global marketing leader, IBM Food Trust at IBM.

What Is Blockchain?

Gopie provided an introductory definition of blockchain: Simply put, it is a series of blocks of information attached together. Each block is a box of information that stores data elements, and this data could be almost anything. Each block has a digital fingerprint associated with it; this fingerprint allows you to know that the block is unique and can attach to other blocks. When new blocks come into the chain, each block has a new fingerprint—one that is unique to that block and of the block before it. This allows the connection to happen, and enables visibility into the origin of each block.

Blockchain enables one book of business and provides three important benefits, said Gopie:

  1. Digital transactions
  2. Distributed ledger with one version of truth throughout the network
  3. Data is immutable
Blockchain, IBM, Food Safety Consortium
IBM’s Nigel Gopie breaks down the basic meaning of blockchain for attendees at the 2018 Food Safety Consortium.

Although blockchain can help to start the process of solving food issues surrounding safety, freshness, reduced waste and sustainability, the technology is only the foundation. A series of other components are important as well, said Gopie, and the following are some insights that the expert panel shared during their discussion.

2018 Food Safety Supply Chain Conference, Blockchain
Is the Food Industry Ready for Blockchain? Check out a dynamic panel about the technology from the 2018 Food Safety Supply Chain Conference.

Can Blockchain Actually Impact Food Safety?

Jorge Hernandez, chief food safety officer at Wholesome International: “To me, it’s a fantastic new technology that would allow the food industry to do a much better job of finding, from seed to fork, all of the processes and things that happen to that product. And in the future, [it] allows us to identify problems first and solve [them]. My problem is it being sold to companies…and not able to deliver on the promise… It bothers me that we are looking at a future that may or may not be there.”

Angela Fernandez, vice president, retail grocery & foodservice at GS1 US: “We’ve been working on traceability and transparency for over a decade—you have to be capturing the data needed, [and] we’re still working on getting it right. We’re just not there yet. I think it’s a great place for us to strive to go towards, but we’re still early in the stages of accepting it as a community.”

David Howard, vice president of corporate strategy at Pavocoin: “Blockchain itself is simply a technology. We’re all here because we’re just trying figure out what application we can use in business. Blockchain is a technology that can help all of you improve operational efficiencies for your bottom line.”

Is Blockchain a Barrier or a Fast Lane to Heightened Liability Concerns?

Shawn Stevens, food industry lawyer and founder of Food Industry Counsel, LLC: “I think the starting point is to ask ourselves what makes food unsafe. It’s a lack of transparency…What blockchain can do is illuminate entire segments of the industry…From a reactive standpoint, blockchain can help us identify a problem [and] solve it. From a preventive standpoint, if I have access to all this information regarding attributes and quality of supplier, I can make better decisions that protect my company.”

“We want to know more and be better informed. Once you know more, you better react and do something. If you’re getting this line of sight and you don’t react to it, that’s what exposes you to liability.”

Darin Detwiler, director, regulatory affairs of food and food industry at Northeastern University: “We need to look at the balance between the reactive use of blockchain and the proactive use.”

2018 Food Safety Consortium on Blockchain. (left to right) David Howard, Pavocoin; Jorge Hernandez, Wholesome International; Nigel Gopie, IBM; Angela Fernandez GS1 US; and Shawn Stevens, Food Industry Counsel, LLC. Not pictured: Darin Detwiler, Northeastern University.

What Barriers Does Industry Need to Anticipate?

Fernandez: “The barrier of the standards and interoperability piece—that’s a big question our community is asking us. Scalability… standards are vital…I think that opens up a different discussion when talking about private versus public blockchain.”

Hernandez: “What is my ROI? The issue I have with blockchain is not only the investment in my organization, but I have to bring my entire supply chain with me if I want to get any benefit. There’s a good value proposition, but it requires you to get everyone on board. When you’re a large organization, it’s probably not that hard to do. But a small organization like mine where my suppliers are an Amish community that sells us cheese, that’s a huge mountain to climb. They don’t have the background [or] the technology, and even if they wanted to do it, it’s a big change for them. You’re asking me to make a change in my relationship with my suppliers.”

“Take a look at it from the business continuity [perspective]. What are the changes you’re going to have to make? And that changes that have to be made by everyone who works with you? We should not stay static. We should continue to look for things. If this is the technology that is going to move us forward, let’s start getting prepared.”