One year ago the FDA held an at-capacity public meeting to discuss its latest initiative, the New Era of Smarter Food Safety. At the time, the agency was planning to release the blueprint for the New Era in the spring of 2020. In fact, the FDA was just days away from unveiling it when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March. The blueprint was put aside and it was all hands on deck, as the agency worked with the food industry to ensure companies continued operating, as they were deemed a part of America’s critical infrastructure. From there, the agency navigated through uncharted waters with the food industry and its stakeholders. It signed an MOU with USDA in an effort to prevent disruptions at FDA-regulated food facilities and address shortages of PPE, disinfection and sanitation supplies. It announced that it would conduct remote inspections and extended the comment period for the Laboratory Accreditation Program Proposed Rule. It released a COVID-19 food safety checklist with OSHA to help guide companies through employee health, social distancing, and the operational issues that have entered into play as a result of the pandemic. Food companies and the supply chain were facing an enormous challenge.
“I always thought we had one of the best food systems in the world… by and large we have an amazing food system,” said Frank Yiannas deputy commissioner for food policy and response during last week’s keynote address at the 2020 Food Safety Consortium Virtual Conference Series. “We just experienced the biggest test on the food system in 100 years. Have we passed the test? I don’t think anyone would say we scored 100%… but by and large we passed the test.” Yiannas added that COVID-19 has exposed some strengths and weaknesses in the food system as well. He also emphasized a point that he has been driving home throughout the pandemic: “The virus that causes COVID-19 is not a virus that is transmitted by food. It is a respiratory virus and generally transmitted in very different ways.”
The FDA released the blueprint for the New Era of Smarter Food Safety, which incorporated some lessons learned from COVID-19, in July. Traceability is a big part of agency’s new era initiative, and the pandemic further put a spotlight on the need for better tracking and tracing in the food industry. And under FSMA, FDA is required to “establish a system that will enhance its ability to track and trace both domestic and imported foods”. In working to meet this requirement, FDA proposed the FSMA rule on food traceability last month.
Yiannas said the proposed rule has the potential to lay the foundation for meaningful harmonization and called aspects of the proposed rule game changing. It establishes two critical components that are the leading edge of food traceability: It defines critical tracking events (i.e., what are the types of events in the food system that required those events to be kept) and key data elements (i.e., the data elements that must be captured at those critical tracking events). “These two things are big ideas for traceability,” said Yiannas. “They will allow us to harmonize how traceability is to be done, allow us to scale and allow for greater interoperability.” The proposed rule also creates a traceability list that identifies foods based on a risk-ranking model for food tracing.
FDA is encouraging comments on the proposed rule and is holding three meetings (November 6, November 18 and December 2) to discuss the proposed traceability rule. “We are going to create the final rule together,” said Yiannas.
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.
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.
The coronavirus pandemic has turned so many aspects of businesses upside down; it is changing how companies approach and execute their strategy. The issue touches all aspects of business and operations, and in a brief Q&A with Food Safety Tech, Mike Edgett of Sage touches on just a few areas in which the future of food manufacturing looks different.
Food Safety Tech: How are food manufacturers and meat processors using AI and robotics to mitigate risks posed by COVID-19?
Mike Edgett: Many food manufacturers and meat processors have had to look to new technologies to account for the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. While most of these measures have been vital in preventing further spread of the virus (or any virus/disease that may present itself in the future), they’ve also given many food manufacturers insight into how these technologies could have a longer-term impact on their operations.
For instance, the mindset that certain jobs needed to be manual have been reconsidered. Companies are embracing automation (e.g., the boning and chopping of meat in a meatpacking plant) to replace historically manual processes. While it may take a while for innovations like this to be incorporated fully, COVID-19 has certainly increased appetite amongst executives who are trying to avoid shutdowns and expedited the potential for future adoption.
FST: What sanitation procedures should be in place to minimize the spread of pathogens and viruses?
Edgett: In the post-COVID-19 era, manufacturers must expand their view of sanitation requirements. It is more than whether the processing equipment is clean. Companies must be diligent and critical of themselves at every juncture—especially when it comes to how staff and equipment are utilized.
While working from home wasn’t a common practice in the manufacturing industry prior to March 2020, it will be increasingly popular moving forward. Such a setup will allow for a less congested workplace, as well as more space and time for bolstered sanitation practices to take place. Now and in the future, third-party cleaning crews will be used onsite and for machinery on a daily basis, with many corporations also experimenting with new ways to maintain the highest cleanliness standards.
This includes the potential for UV sterilization (a tactic that is being experimented with across industries), new ways to sterilize airflow (which is particularly important in meatpacking plants, where stagnant air is the enemy) and the inclusion of robotics (which could be used overnight to avoid overlap with human employees). These all have the potential to minimize the spread of pathogens and, ultimately, all viruses that may arise.
FST: How is the food industry adjusting to the remote working environment?
Edgett: While the pandemic has changed the ways businesses and employees work across most industries, F&B manufacturers did face some unique challenges in shifting to a remote working environment.
Manufacturing as a whole has always relied on the work of humans, overseeing systems, machinery and technology to finalize production—but COVID-19 has changed who and how many people can be present in a plant at once. Naturally, at the start of the pandemic, this meant that schedules and shifts had to be altered, and certain portions of managerial oversight had to be completed virtually.
Of course, with employee and consumer safety of paramount concern, cleaning crews and sanitation practices have taken precedent, and have been woven effectively and efficiently into altered schedules.
While workers that are essential to the manufacturing process have been continuing to work in many facilities, there will likely be expanded and extended work-from-home policies for other functions within the F&B manufacturing industry moving forward. This will result in companies needed to embrace technology that can support this work environment.
FST: Can you briefly explain how traceability is playing an even larger role during the pandemic?
Edgett: The importance of complete traceability for food manufacturers has never been greater. While traceability is by no means a new concept, COVID-19 has not only made it the number one purchasing decision for your customers, but [it is also] a vital public health consideration.
The good news is that much of the industry recognizes this. In fact, according to a survey conducted by Sage and IDC, manufacturing executives said a key goal of theirs is to achieve 100% traceability over production and supply chain, which serves as a large part of their holistic digital mission.
Traceability was already a critical concern for most manufacturers—especially those with a younger customer base. However, the current environment has shone an even greater spotlight on the importance of having a complete picture of not only where our food comes from—but [also] the facilities and machinery used in its production. Major budget allocations will surely be directed toward traceability over the next 5–10 years.
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.
On October 1, Frank Yiannas will be the keynote speaker for the 2020 Food Safety Consortium Virtual Series || The series takes place during the weeks of September 3 through December 17Expect the much-anticipated blueprint for FDA’s New Era of Food Safetyto be released soon. The agency has not provided an exact date but in an update prior to the July 4th holiday, FDA stated it would be rolled it out “in the coming weeks”.
“The challenges we’ve faced during the pandemic have made it clear that the goals we set forth in the New Era blueprint are more important now than ever. Some of them, like enhanced traceability, are particularly meaningful in light of recent events,” Frank Yiannas, FDA’s Deputy Commissioner for Food Policy and Response, stated in an agency consumer update. “What we have learned from the pandemic is that we’re on the right track with the New Era of Smarter Food Safety. The steps that we’ll take will prepare us to protect the safety of our food supply, no matter what challenges we face.”
In addition to the focus on emerging digital technologies, traceability in the supply chain, ensuring safety in the home delivery of food (e-commerce), and food safety culture, FDA will be including the lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic as part of the blueprint structure.
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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