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.
Vitamins play a critical role in the regulation of key physiological processes, such as blood clotting, metabolism and maintaining our vision. These biologically important compounds can be divided into two broad classes based on their solubility and differ in the way they are handled in the body—and in food safety laboratories. While excess amounts of water-soluble vitamins (including B1, B2, B3, B6 and B12) are excreted, fat-soluble vitamins (including vitamin A, D, E and K) can be stored in the liver or fatty tissue for later use. The simultaneous analysis of water- and fat-soluble vitamins in traditional liquid chromatography is difficult, and is compounded by the presence of biologically important vitamin isomers, which exist at lower concentrations and demand greater sensitivity from analytical techniques.
Food analysis laboratories support food manufacturers by assessing food safety and authenticity, and have a responsibility to produce precise and reliable data. Vitamins are among a number of compounds assessed in infant formulas, energy drinks and other supplements, and are added to fortify the nutritional value of these products. Given the critical nutritional role of vitamins, especially during early developmental periods, their characterization is highly important. This, along with the challenging and cumbersome nature of vitamin analysis, has spurred the development of innovative high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) methods for food safety testing.
Unique Challenges of Vitamin Analysis
The simultaneous analysis of water- and fat-soluble vitamins is difficult to achieve with reversed-phase high-performance liquid chromatography, due to the wide range of hydrophobicity among vitamins. Highly hydrophobic fat-soluble vitamins are retained strongly by chromatography columns and are only eluted with high-strength mobile phases. In contrast, water-soluble vitamins are usually poorly retained, even with very weak mobile phases. As the ideal conditions for chromatographic separation are very different for the two vitamin classes, there have been efforts to explore the possibility of operating two columns sequentially in one system. The early versions of this approach, however, were not well suited to high-throughput food safety laboratories, requiring complex hardware setup and even more complicated chromatography data system programming.
Prior to liquid chromatography analysis, food samples must be purified and concentrated to ensure target analytes can be detected without matrix interference. Liquid-liquid extraction is one purification method used to prepare for the analysis of vitamins and other compounds; it was one of the first methods developed for purification and enables compounds to be separated based on their relative solubilities in two different immiscible liquids.1 It is a simple, flexible and affordable method, yet has several major disadvantages.2 Liquid-liquid extraction consists of multiple tedious steps and requires the use of large volumes, therefore the time for completion is highly dependent on the operator’s skills and experience. Consequently, the duration of sample exposure to unfavorable conditions can vary greatly, which compromises reproducibility and efficiency of the method. This is of concern for vitamins that are particularly prone to degradation and loss when exposed to heat and light, such as vitamin D in milk powder.
Two-Dimensional Liquid Chromatography Enables Deeper and Faster Analysis
Analysts in the food industry are under pressure to process high volumes of samples, and require simple, high-throughput and high-resolution systems. Fortunately, two-dimensional liquid chromatography (2D-LC) systems have evolved markedly in recent years, and are ideally suited for the separation of vitamins and other compounds in food and beverages. There are two main types of systems, known as comprehensive and heart-cutting 2D-LC. In comprehensive 2D-LC, the sample is separated on the first column, as it would be in 1D-LC. The entire eluate is then passed in distinct portions into a second column with a different selectivity, enabling improved separation of closely eluting compounds. In contrast, heart-cutting 2D-LC is more suited to targeted studies as only a selected fraction (heart-cut) of the eluate is transferred to the second-dimension column.
Recently, another novel approach has emerged which utilizes two independent LC flow paths. In dual workflows, each sample is processed by two columns in parallel, which are integrated in a single instrument for ease of use. The columns may offer identical or different analyses to enable a higher throughput or deeper insights on each sample. This approach is highly suited to vitamin analysis, as the two reversed-phase columns enable simultaneous analysis of water- and fat-soluble vitamins. A simple, optimized preparation method is required for each of the two vitamin classes to ensure samples are appropriately filtered and concentrated or diluted, depending on the expected amount of analyte in the sample. The dual approach enables a broad range of ingredients to be assessed concurrently in supplement tablets, energy drinks, and other food and beverages containing both water- and fat-soluble vitamins. For analysts working to validate claims by food vendors, these advances are a welcome change.
Refined Detection and Extraction Methods Create a Boost in Productivity
Analysts in food analysis laboratories now have a better ability to detect a wide range of components in less time, due to improved detection and extraction methods. Modern LC systems utilize a wide range of analytical detectors, including:
Mass spectrometry (MS)
Diode array detection (DAD)
Charged aerosol detection (CAD)
Fluorescence detection (FLD)
The optimal detector technology will depend on the molecular characteristics of the target analyte. Infant formula, for example, can be analyzed by DAD and FLD, with detection and separation powerful enough to accurately quantify the four isomers of vitamin E, and separate vitamin D2 and D3. Highly sensitive 2D-LC methods are also particularly favorable for the trace level quantitation of toxins in food, such as aflatoxins in nuts, grains and spices.
Given the limitations of liquid-liquid extraction, an alternative, simplified approach has been sought for 2D-LC analysis. Liquid-liquid extraction, prior to chromatography analysis, involves many tedious separation steps. In contrast, the use of solid phase extraction for infant formula testing reduces pre-treatment time from three hours to one hour, while improving detection. This is of great significance in the context of enterprise product quality control, where a faster, simpler pre-treatment method translates into a greater capacity of product testing and evaluation.
HPLC Toolkit for Food Safety Analysis Continues to Expand
Several other HPLC approaches have also been utilized in the field of food safety and authentication. For example, ultra-high-performance liquid chromatography (UHPLC) with detection by CAD followed by principal component analysis (PCA) can be used to investigate olive oil purity. In contrast to conventional approaches (fatty acid and sterol analysis), this revised method requires very little time and laboratory resources to complete, enabling companies to significantly reduce costs by implementing in-house purity analysis. With a reduced need for chemicals and solvents compared with fatty acid and sterol analyses, UHPLC-CAD provides a more environmentally friendly alternative.
Analyzing amino acid content in wine is an important aspect of quality control yet requiring derivatization to improve retention and separation of highly hydrophilic amino acids. Derivatization, however, is labor-intensive, error-prone, and involves the handling of toxic chemicals. To overcome these limitations, hydrophilic interaction liquid chromatography (HILIC) combined with mass detection has been identified as an alternative method. While HILIC is an effective technique for the separation of small polar compounds on polar stationary phases, there still may be cases where analytes in complex samples will not be completely separated. The combination of HILIC with MS detection overcomes this challenge, as MS provides another level of selectivity. Modern single quadrupole mass detectors are easy to operate and control, so even users without in-depth MS expertise can enjoy improved accuracy and reproducibility, while skipping derivatization steps.
Recent innovations in 2D- and dual LC technology are well suited to routine vitamin analysis, and the assessment of other components important in food safety evaluation. The concurrent and precise assessment of water- and fat-soluble vitamins, despite their markedly different retention and elution characteristics, is a major step forward for the industry. Drastic improvements in 2D-LC usability, flexibility and sensitivity also allows for biologically important vitamin isomers to be detected at trace levels. A shift towards simpler, high-throughput systems that eliminate complicated assembly processes, derivatization and liquid-liquid extraction saves time and money, while enabling laboratories to produce more reliable results for food manufacturers. In terms of time and solvent savings, solid phase extraction is superior to liquid-liquid extraction and is one of many welcome additions to the food analysis toolkit.
Schmidt, A. and Strube, J. (2018). Application and Fundamentals of Liquid-Liquid Extraction Processes: Purification of Biologicals, Botanicals, and Strategic Metals. In John Wiley & Sons, Inc (Ed.), Kirk-Othmer Encyclopedia of Chemical Technology. (pp. 1–52).
Musteata, M. and Musteata, F. (2011). Overview of extraction methods for analysis of vitamin D and its metabolites in biological samples. Bioanalysis, 3(17), 1987–2002.
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.
Consumer safety is of paramount importance and product recalls are a necessary means to this end. Product recalls are a serious, complex, and costly issue affecting the food and beverage industry in the United States. The FDA estimates that there are around 48 million cases of foodborne illness each year—causing one in six Americans to get sick from contaminated food. In addition to affecting public health, recalls have a dramatic effect on manufacturers by creating economic problems, damaging a company’s reputation, and imposing potential legal penalties and liabilities. In the search for a business management solution to better prepare themselves for and reduce the risk of recalls in their operations, many food manufacturers have discovered that technology, specifically ERP software, is key to lowering the risk of food and beverage product recalls.
An industry-specific ERP solution is a centralized business system with key industry features providing a system of record-keeping, with the tools to support the preparation and reduction of recall risks. While a manufacturer is ultimately responsible for a product recall, an ERP solution is essential in supporting and championing overall recall readiness and reduction. With the streamlined and automated inventory, manufacturing, and quality control processes managed within the software, critical steps and data that assist in recall mitigation are documented—including supplier verification records, audit logs, receipt records, quality testing, lot tracking, and shipment logs. The key to prevention of a product recall is preparation, which can be handled efficiently through an ERP’s functionality specifically in the following areas.
An ERP facilitates best practices for supplier management and risk assessment within the solution to assure the acquisition of quality raw materials from trusted vendors. Its role is to maintain an approved supplier list for each product ingredient, documenting detailed supplier information, quality control test results, and risk level to ensure in-house and customer-specific standards are met. For approved or activated suppliers, information regarding materials that can be purchased through the vendor, applicable certifications, quality control results, and other pertinent supplier information is stored within the centralized data system of the ERP. A risk assessment for each vendor is also documented to ensure that any potential inherent risk(s) from vendor-issued recalls and to finished goods are limited.
In addition to activated suppliers, an ERP solution also assigns and manages qualified alternates to provide vetted selections should a primary supplier’s materials become unavailable. This positions a company well in the supply chain, as the investigative work has already been conducted on other suppliers, limiting the need and risk associated with onboarding an unknown supplier in a moment of crisis. Vendors are recorded within the system and ranked in order of preference and/or risk level so that they can be identified and put into use quickly if a supplier becomes unavailable—providing the preparation and leverage that companies need to mitigate the risk to safety in the supply chain. In a product recall situation, when a supplier notifies a customer of a contaminated ingredient, the supplier management feature within the ERP solution provides for a qualified replacement vendor that can fulfill the needed raw material quickly and efficiently.
An ERP system offers end-to-end traceability, maintaining a comprehensive record that tracks raw ingredients, work-in-progress, and final products throughout the supply chain using barcode scanning to link product and lot information to batch tickets, QC testing results, shipping documents, and labels. This full forward and backward lot traceability is necessary to provide a documented audit trail imperative to locating raw materials or finished goods quickly within the initial 24-hour time period of a product recall. With full manufacturing, inventory, and reporting integrations, the ERP supports sound manufacturing practices that assist with recall preparedness – maintaining current Good Manufacturing Practices (cGMP), FDA reporting, GFSI compliance, and other industry-specific regulations to provide a documented audit trail with the ability to adapt as compliance requirements change.
Managing protocols to ensure the quality of inbound and outbound materials is essential in minimizing recall risk across the entire supply chain—from raw materials to the delivered final product. With an industry-specific ERP solution, formulas, recipes and instructions are maintained, scaled and verified to ensure consistency of products within the manufacturing process. This instills preventative measures throughout the production cycle in the form of process steps and quality control test specifications to bolster safety and quality. Quality features such as quarantine status and other status capabilities permit the isolating, removing and disposing of raw ingredients and finished goods that fail to meet quality control standards—triggering an alert to notify the purchasing department to investigate the issue. Having the ability to remove ingredients and finished goods from inventory or production prevents contaminated items from reaching store shelves and consumers, which reduces overall recall risk.
Inventory control practices are an important part of the functionality within an ERP solution that help to reduce overall recall risk. This includes managing and reporting of shelf life and expiration dates to maintain precise and lean control of inventory and reduce variances. Automated inventory transactions with the use of an ERP’s warehouse management solution (WMS) follow industry best practices and improve efficiency to ensure the accuracy of shipments, transfers, and material returns. This real-time visibility allows for the maintenance of FIFO inventory practices necessary to reduce the risk of spoilage.
One of the leading causes of contamination for food and beverage manufacturers that results in a recall event is a lack of allergen control throughout the supply chain and production process. An ERP system helps to track, manage and record the handling, storage and batch steps of raw materials from farm-to-fork. This includes stringent sanitary practices, lot tracking, raw material segregation and process controls to avoid allergen contamination or cross-contamination. Accurate product labeling is also a significant factor in reducing risk and an automated system that generates nutritional and product package labels plays a key role in a company’s recall prevention. To meet the needs of consumers and regulators, an ERP solution automates label creation to include accurate ingredient and allergen statements, nutrient analysis, expiration dates, lot and batch numbers, and regulatory specifications. The labeling history documented in the software allows products to be identified and located quickly in the event of a recall.
Utilizing the recall functionality in the ERP solution allows companies to plan and test their recall process in advance. Performing mock recalls permits regular measurement and improvement of procedures to ensure rapid, accurate, and thorough responses by all company stakeholders in the event of a recall. A successful simulated exercise identifies 100% of recalled ingredients/products and notifies appropriate entities in a timely manner. Evaluation and documentation of mock recall exercises help expose inefficiencies, process gaps and procedural adjustments, which are designed to improve recall readiness and minimize consumer exposure to potentially dangerous contaminants.
As proof or documentation of adherence to specific processes, reporting is essential to demonstrate that these processes have been completed—without it, an integral component is missing. Across the supply chain and throughout the manufacturing process, documentation and reporting accentuate steps that have been taken to prepare and reduce recall risk. Risk-based assessments in supplier management, lot traceability reports, and mock recall reporting all provide a starting point of analysis to allow for adjustments to be made across the business. In a recall situation, the system is able to create lot tracking reports that encompass raw ingredients through shipped finished goods. These reports can be produced in minutes, rather than the hours it takes if data is stored within separate software programs.
Due to the amount of time and money that food and beverage companies invest in getting their products to market, it is imperative that preventative measures are taken in order to avoid a product recall. Forward-thinking manufacturers can help prepare for and reduce recall risks by utilizing several important features in ERP software—including supplier management, inventory control, and reporting. Using the tools at their disposal, a company can mitigate liabilities and protect their brand to turn a potential crisis into a future filled with opportunities.
FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn, M.D. recently announced that food safety inspections will resume in July, but inspectors will be given leeway to accommodate the coronavirus pandemic. Inspections will be prearranged by appointments. The agency suspended routine inspections in late March as a result of the pandemic response, which closed down much of the country.
The “White House Guidelines for Opening Up America Again” calls for the FDA to send out investigators for on-site inspections by the week of July 20, using the COVID-19 Advisory Rating system, which utilizes state and national data about infection rates to determine the regions where enforcement can resume.
In a July 10 FDA statement Hahn noted, “resuming prioritized domestic inspections will depend on the data about the virus’ trajectory in a given state and locality, and the rules and guidelines that are put in place by state and local governments.”
One of the most significant modifications for domestic inspections in the announcement is that they will be pre-announced to FDA-regulated businesses. “This will help assure the safety of the investigator and the firm’s employees, providing the safest possible environment to accomplish our regulatory activities, while also ensuring the appropriate staff is on-site to assist FDA staff with inspection activities,” Hahn said. Previously, most inspections were unannounced.
It’s not entirely clear how FDA will use the White House guidelines to determine where they can schedule inspections. There is mention of a prioritization mechanism that will identify high-risk operations, but that has traditionally been part of FDA’s approach to inspections.
The CDC published phased guidelines for states to follow in reopening, which are referred to in the announcement. The guidelines document outlines the gating criteria for states, but published versions do not mention inspection requirements. Many states began reopening without meeting all of the gateway criteria for Phase 1, and continued to accelerate reopening activities in a way that makes it unclear which phase criteria they may have actually met when compared to the phase under which they claim to be operating.
Further complicating the safety issue is the recent rising number of COVID-19 cases that is causing some states to pause or rollback reopening activities. Since publishing the announcement, several states have emerged as new COVID-19 hot spots, including Texas, Arizona and Florida; In addition, Florida has surpassed New York in total cases. California, another food producing state heavily affected by the pandemic, is seeing a significant increase in cases and is considering issuing new shelter-in-place orders. It was recently reported that CDC has identified 21 states as “Red Zones”, with at least 11 states on the verge of surging cases.
In other words, with the virus on the rise, there may not be a significant number of inspections actually performed, regardless of whether or not inspections have technically resumed, simply because there just isn’t a safe way to send inspectors out.
The FDA has also published the “New Era of Smarter Food Safety Blueprint”, which includes ways the agency could use technology to support compliance activities. There may be an opportunity for the FDA to implement new tools such as remote verification in lieu of onsite inspections, but that remains to be seen. Among such tools, remote audit pilots were recently completed and those results will be available for public presentation at the end of August.
In the short term, should FDA determine you are an inspection candidate, you will contacted in advance to schedule a day and time.
The COVID-19 pandemic emphatically laid bare the supply chain and supplier vulnerabilities that we face in our increasingly global food supply chains. Last month my company, Mesh Intelligence, convened a group of 14 leading supply chain, risk, sourcing and food safety executives drawn from some of the largest and most innovative food companies around the globe and in all aspects of the supply chain—from manufacturing, importing, distribution, logistics and retail. They volunteered their time to explore new solutions to better manage risk in their global food supply chains and are working together to develop and guide a lasting solution to address the challenges they faced across the past few months and manage supply chain in a more uncertain environment.
Zeroing In on the Need for Practical Solutions to Address Critical Issues
The group discussed how the tools and processes they currently use to manage supply chains are inadequate in identifying the scale, scope and intensity of new issues that arose during the pandemic and, more importantly, how these solutions need to be augmented in the future. To zero in on practical solutions, this group focused on the most critical challenges to address; understanding the best practices to tackle these issues; and guiding the development of data driven, practical and scalable solutions to predict risk.
Key insights from the group discussion include:
The need for early, actionable warning on risk. Food organizations are seeking actionable, early warning signals about upcoming supply chain issues. Risk alerts, if they do exist, currently tend to be disaggregated and dispersed within an organization and executives struggle to understand the full picture.
The need to communicate risk across the organization and the supply chain. Executives are seeking ways to communicate forecasted risk in fact-based and data-driven ways across key stakeholders within and outside the organization. There was clear interest in ways to engage suppliers and parties up and down the supply chain.
Focusing on the most important risks and scenario planning a workable approach. Organizations are seeking ways to future proof their supply chains and increase resilience. By ensuring that their strategies are tested to withstand likely scenarios and situations, organizations improve their ability to work under increased uncertainty.
The ability to continuously monitor and vet suppliers, even in a remote setting. Organizations are looking to get ahead of supplier issues and are seeking ways to work with suppliers to continuously monitor, vet and manage issues as they arise. This requires increased transparency and greater communication across parties in the supply chain.
Participants of the group are also getting early access to the solution and data to support them in their food safety and supply chain risk management efforts. The group will continue to meet on over the next few months to continue to guide the development of a food supply chain risk management solution. We look forward to keeping you updated. If you have insights on this issue, we encourage you to reach out. If you are interested in learning more about us or joining the group, please contact us at email@example.com
The COVID-19 crisis has exacerbated existing disconnects between food supply and demand. While some may be noticing these issues on a broader scale for the first time, the reality is that there have been challenges in our food supply chains for decades. A lack of accurate data and information sharing is the core of the problem and had greater impact due to the pandemic. Outdated technologies are preventing advancements and efficiencies, resulting in the paradox of mounting food insecurity and food waste.
To bridge this disconnect, the food industry needs to implement innovative AI and machine learning technologies to prevent shortages, overages and waste as COVID-19 subsides. Solutions that enable data sharing and collaboration are essential to build more resilient food supply chains for the future.
Data-sharing technologies that can help alleviate these problems have been under development for decades, but food supply chains have been slow to innovate compared to other industries. By reviewing the top four data-sharing technologies used in food industry and the year they were introduced to food supply chains, it’s evident that the pace of technology innovation and adoption needs to accelerate to advance the industry.
A History of Technology Adoption in the Food Industry
The Barcode – 19741
We’re all familiar with the barcode—that assemblage of lines translated into numbers and letters conveying information about a product. When a cashier scans a barcode, the correct price pops up on the POS, and the sale data is recorded for inventory management. Barcodes are inexpensive and easy to implement. However, they only provide basic information, such as a product’s name, type, and price. Also, while you can glean information from a barcode, you can’t change it or add information to it. In addition, barcodes only group products by category—as opposed to radio-frequency identification (RFID), which provides a different code for every single item.
EDI First Multi-Industry Standards – 19812
Electronic data interchange (EDI) is just what it sounds like—the concept of sharing information electronically instead of on paper. Since EDI standardizes documents and the way they’re transferred, communication between business partners along the supply chain is easier, more efficient, and human error is reduced. To share information via EDI, however, software is required. This software can be challenging for businesses to implement and requires IT expertise to handle updates and maintenance.
RFID in the Food Supply Chain – 20033
RFID and RFID tags are encoded with information that can be transmitted to a reader device via radio waves, allowing businesses to identify and track products and assets. The reader device translates the radio waves into usable data, which then lands in a database for tracking and analysis.
RFID tags hold a lot more data than barcodes—and data is accessible in remote locations and easily shared along the supply chain to boost transparency and trust. Unlike barcode scanners, which need a direct line of sight to a code, RFID readers can read multiple tags at once from any direction. Businesses can use RFID to track products from producer to supplier to retailer in real time.
In 2003, Walmart rolled out a pilot program requiring 100 of its suppliers to use RFID technology by 2005.3 However, the retail giant wasn’t able to scale up the program. While prices have dropped from 35–40 cents during Walmart’s pilot to just 5 cents each as of 2018, RFID tags are still more expensive than barcodes.4 They can also be harder to implement and configure. Since active tags have such a long reach, businesses also need to ensure that scammers can’t intercept sensitive data.
Blockchain – 20175
A blockchain is a digital ledger of blocks (records) used to record data across multiple transactions. Changes are recorded in real-time, making the history unfalsifiable and transparent. Along the food supply chain, users can tag food, materials, compliance certificates and more with a set of information that’s recorded on the blockchain. Partners can easily follow the item through the physical supply chain, and new information is recorded in real-time.
Blockchain is more secure and transparent, less vulnerable to fraud, and more scalable than technologies like RFID. When paired with embedded sensors and RFID tags, the tech offers easier record-keeping and better provenance tracking, so it can address and help solve traceability problems. Blockchain boosts trust by reducing food falsification and decreasing delays in the supply chain.6
On the negative side, the cost of transaction processing with blockchain is high. Not to mention, the technology is confusing to many, which hinders adoption. Finally, while more transparency is good news, there’s such a thing as too much transparency; there needs to be a balance, so competitors don’t have too much access to sensitive data.
Cloud-Based Demand Forecasting – 2019 to present7
Cloud-based demand forecasting uses machine learning and AI to predict demand for various products at different points in the food supply chain. This technology leverages other technologies on this list to enhance communication across supply chain partners and improve the accuracy of demand forecasting, resulting in less waste and more profit for the food industry. It enables huge volumes of data to be used to predict demand, including past buying patterns, market changes, weather, events and holidays, social media input and more to create a more accurate picture of demand.
The alternative to cloud-based demand forecasting that is still in use today involves Excel or manual spreadsheets and lots of number crunching, which are time-intensive and prone to human error. This manual approach is not a sustainable process, but AI, machine learning and automation can step in to resolve these issues.
Obtaining real-time insights from a centralized, accurate and accessible data source enables food suppliers, brokers, distributors, brands and retailers to share information and be nimble, improving their ability to adjust supply in response to factors influencing demand.8 This, in turn, reduces cost, time and food waste, since brands can accurately predict how much to produce down to the individual SKU level, where to send it and even what factors might impact it along the way.
Speeding Up Adoption
As illustrated in Figure 1, the pace of technology change in the food industry has been slow compared to other industries, such as music and telecommunications. But we now have the tools, the data and the brainpower to create more resilient food supply chains.
Given the inherent connectivity of partners in the food supply chain, we now need to work together to connect information systems in ways that give us the insights needed to deliver exactly the rights foods to the right places, at the right time. This will not only improve consumer satisfaction but will also protect revenue and margins up and down food supply chains and reduce global waste.
Today FDA released the New Era for Smarter Food Safety Blueprint. The much-anticipated document was originally scheduled for release in March but was delayed due to the agency’s response to COVID-19. Although the agency’s plan places a lot of focus on the use of new technology, FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn, M.D., stressed that it is also about enabling more effective methods and processes.
Tech-Enabled Traceability. A lesson learned during the coronavirus pandemic was that there is a need for greater traceability and visibility in the supply chain. “One of the challenges we’ve faced over the years is recurring outbreaks of illnesses associated with the consumption of certain foods,” said Hahn. “What this daunting problem underscores is the critical importance of the FDA working with industry so that we can rapidly trace a contaminated food to its source. And when I say rapidly, I mean minutes, not days, weeks, or even longer.
Smarter Tools and Approaches for Prevention and Outbreak Response. Here, the FDA is emphasizing the “power of data”. “The plans embraced by the blueprint include strengthening our procedures and protocols for conducting the root cause analyses that can identify how a food became contaminated and inform our understanding of how to help prevent that from happening again,” said Hahn.
New Business Models and Retail Modernization. This element address food production and delivery, as well as food safety in restaurants and the retail setting.
Food Safety Culture. “The pandemic has given us a new perspective on what we mean by food safety culture,” said Hahn. He stated that beyond influencing human behavior, food safety culture must also address worker safety and consumer education.
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.
The food industry is adapting in completely new ways as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Retailers are scrambling to keep certain items on store shelves and manufacturers are adjusting their production strategies based on realistic and ever-shifting needs. In a recent discussion with Food Safety Tech, Angela Fernandez, VP of community engagement at GS1 US and FST editorial advisory board member, talks about how companies can improve relationships with trading partners in the face of COVID-19.
Food Safety Tech: What issues do you see happening in the supply chain right now?
Angela Fernandez: Our food supply chain is experiencing overwhelming demand. As an organization that collaborates with both the retail grocery and foodservice sectors to solve supply chain challenges, we’re working with industry on how we can make our supply chain more efficient in the short term, and make it more resilient in the long term.
Consumers are frustrated by empty shelves and the demand created by the pandemic is changing the movement of products. Right now, products are not always accounted for in transit, there are production issues depending on category, and food produced for foodservice outlets like restaurants, schools, and hotels can’t always be easily diverted to a supermarket. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is lifting restrictions on the sale of food so that it is possible for items that may have been produced for foodservice “sale” to be sold in a supermarket.
FST: In what particular areas are you seeing inventory shortages that are impacting retailers and suppliers?
Fernandez: We’re seeing a couple of different dynamics. For suppliers that produce products for both retail and foodservice channels, we see a shift in reducing production on foodservice items and an increasing manufacturing on their retail product lines. We’re also seeing foodservice suppliers that have not serviced the retail channel previously are now looking to establish new relationships with retailers and recession-proof their businesses. This is not happening as fast as consumer demand for perimeter products like dairy and produce, so we see shortages and products expiring before they can be sold to these new retail customers.
Additionally, food product variation and customization is decreasing. If you think about your own experience going to the grocery store today, or arranging for a delivery, you’re seeing fewer flavors of a product available and fewer brand names you’re familiar with. Suppliers are continuing to shift back to mainstream production of their core product lines just to keep store shelves stocked. I think that’s what we’re going to continue to see—the reduction of customized and specialty items.
For retailers, they have a prioritized the focus on ramping up their e-commerce strategy to relieve the pressure on their stores and service more consumers online. This poses a particular challenge when retailers have limited IT resources and a need to set up a new item supplied from a new foodservice manufacturer that is trying to divert their products to the retail channel to support the demand. And in some cases unfortunately, foodservice suppliers maybe unable to redirect some of their products due to the fact they are not marked for individual sale with the traditional U.P.C. and other retailer requirements.
FST: Is there a better way that food companies, retailers and suppliers can work together during this pandemic?
Fernandez: Food companies can improve the way they work together if they focus on supply chain visibility and data quality. Visibility is key as suppliers are ramping up production on those mainstream products and trying to get them to the proper locations when retailers need them. That’s where I would look at GS1 Standards such as the Global Trade Item Number (GTIN) for product identification and the advance ship notice (ASN) transaction, which lets a partner know when something is ready and being shipped. Global data standards enable the visibility to what delivery a retailer can expect and when, and being able to account for that inventory once it’s inside the DC [distribution center] location so that they can update an online platform. This can help ensure that a retailer has accurate information for the consumer and ability minimize the substitutions that can occur.
The second piece is the data quality aspect—making sure we have the right information around those core items that we are trying to keep stocked on the shelves for consumers who are purchasing those items today. The retail grocery and foodservice industries have been working on making product data more complete and accurate for a number of years, but we’ve seen a heightened focus on it now, knowing that consumers are relying on digital information to be correct since they cannot see the product in person right now. Expanding the data set for the consumer is critical.
FST: What is GS1 US doing right now to help customers better navigate today’s environment?
Fernandez: GS1 US is helping trading partners work with the capabilities they have to implement greater supply chain visibility, improve data quality and ramp up e-commerce operations. Depending on what was already implemented by the manufacturer or retailer, we’re looking at how we can leverage existing capabilities to help partners work together more efficiently to meet demand. How we can help connect the physical product and the digital data, knowing how important that is online right now, not only for trading partners but also for consumers?
One example of how GS1 Standards can be extended is if a retailer is looking to shorten their supply chain and purchase from a local farm. Standards provide a blueprint for supply chain partners to work together in a consistent way. We want to help these companies leverage and extend the standards instead of proprietary systems and abandoning useful processes for item setup, data exchange and point of sale checkout. Those are the types of discussions that we’re having—how GS1 US members can extend the standards that lead to operational efficiency and more easily bring in new partners to help fulfill demand.
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