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The FDA put it bluntly.

‘Modern times call for modern approaches.’

And if COVID-19 taught the greater food system anything, it’s the undeniable need for modern, sophisticated systems to counter unique challenges.

The entire value chain benefits from increased transparency and traceability. But the systems have to be practical, fusing with existing operations, and manageable in very real-time production, processing, and distribution scenarios. 

A shift this great will take time and effort, but it is already in process. Those food companies who get ahead of the curve by implementing technology and shaping the future will be at the forefront of the new traceability era in food and produce.

Evaluate the Status Quo

To better understand a future state, supply chain partners must ground themselves with where they stand today to properly map a plan.

Traceability and transparency aren’t new buzzwords to the food supply chain. They know the costs:

  1. The USDA notes the economic toll of food-borne illnesses is $15.5 billion.
  2. 48 million Americans get sick annually from foodborne diseases per the Center for Disease Control.
  3. The Produce Safety Project at Georgetown University found that foodborne-related illnesses rack up $152 billion annually in healthcare costs.

And specifically in the produce industry, where the Producer Traceability Initiative noted 6 billion cases are shuffled annually, the stakes couldn’t be higher.

When fresh produce leaves our fields, we should be accountable and responsible for the food we put into commerce

Jamie Strachan, CEO, Growers Express

The value of a food system that can quickly and efficiently identify a source of contamination is undisputed. While traceability can’t be a cure-all to all foodborne disease problems, it can drastically improve response efforts, mitigating negative impact and strengthening customer confidence. 

While visionary leaders in the industry are rapidly adopting new technology, it’s not until the system at-large has implemented tools and processes that speed and efficiency can truly kick in. Pilot projects, like that of a 4-month leafy green traceability initiative by the Institute of Food Technologists, give a glimmer into what that future could be.

But today, it’s still not uncommon for paper-based records to trail food and produce throughout the supply chain. Even where technology has been implemented, there is a chasm of data quality and compatibility issues between value chain partners and their respective processes. 

Shopper card data, food package bar codes, purchase orders, and shipping reports all feed various ERPs and reporting tools, yet many don’t communicate well with one another. And zooming out at the entire supply chain technology landscape, it can be daunting to imagine hundreds of platforms across production, logistics, and retail working interchangeably. 

Source: Culterra Capital | https://www.culterracapital.com/post/delivering-the-goods-our-2021-food-supply-chain-tech-predictions

But shoppers and regulators are demanding change and expectations are set. As Hart Research and Public Opinion Strategies found, 94% of Americans believe that standard traceability from production to the point of sale is table stakes. It’s now the industry’s turn to provide the solutions that make that a reality.

Modernize the Systems

Rapidly accelerating track and trace capabilities in the food system will take all value chain players to get on the bandwagon.

From input manufacturers to farmers to traders and processors, all the way through distribution to retail and the brands themselves, it will take a collective effort.

As Harvard Business Review reveals, that heavy lift can be facilitated by best-in-class technology and can further create a reality where the following isn’t a mirage:

  • Seamless data collection along the supply chain
  • Distributed ledger technology that facilitates data transfer and analysis
  • Agreed-upon standards for data governance and accessibility
  • Affordable and commercially viable oversight platforms
  • Automated handling of food recalls throughout the value chain

To facilitate this effort across industry partners, the FDA is boosting collaboration. The Food Safety Modernization Act focuses on creating a risk-based, prevention-oriented regulatory framework that underlies all technological and process decisions.

Source: Food & Drug Administration | https://www.fda.gov/media/139868/download

Smarter Food Safety to me means always looking to the future. Our destination − safe food for our families, our children, and our animals − is unchanged. But how do we get there more quickly and effectively using modern tools as the world transforms around us?

Stephen Hahn, FDA Commissioner in the FDA’s Blueprint for the Future.

Those modern tools have already created massive changes in individual segments of the supply chain. From farm management software to omnichannel food distribution platforms, there are many examples of utilizing data, artificial intelligence, sensor technology, and more to create transparency and glean economic insights.

But it’s bridging the supply chain layers where traceability can thrive. 

What if, for example, customer shopping insights or foodborne detection data informed decisions at the farm level? Specific data could point to regenerative agriculture efforts where traceability leads to optimizing yields or soil quality over multiple seasons.

Or imagine the ability to monitor freshness or food spoilage? Using supply chain analytics to stay agile and reduce waste translates into practical decisions like adjusting product storage environments or harvesting produce at the prime time interval. All the hidden costs in productivity and spoilage will begin to present themselves in a world of traceability. 

And that’s just the beginning. Blockchain and the Internet of Things are other powerful tools to employ in that envisioned ecosystem. 

Distributed ledger technology would create secure transaction records with data made accessible to all parties as noted by Science Direct. As the ledgers are replicated and dispensed to value chain participants, transparency is realized. Changes to data are real-time and viewed by all, and regulators can facilitate recalls and monitor situations as needed in a ‘read only’ mode.

Source: Science Direct | https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2211912418301408

Even in a multi-configured product where multiple ingredients source from various supply chains, the ledger’s ability to precisely and quickly provide traceability would be significantly beyond standard capabilities today.

These modern tools will strengthen predictive capabilities, accelerate prevention, and generate speedier responses that will be necessary for the future of traceability. 

Activate the Future

A future aligned food chain will produce transformative public health and economic possibilities. 

As noted by the World Economic Forum, a new normal could entail:

  • Enhanced automation, saving hours of processing records
  • Faster real-time data collection, improving agile, insightful supply chain decisions 
  • Improved product scanning, resulting in speedy, more accurate ordering

From farm to fork, the supply chain can realize immediate benefits in this new ecosystem.  A producer can monitor water safety or crop inputs to validate safety. A consumer can quickly scan a code on a spinach container or receive an auto-text if the vegetable has a potential foodborne-related risk. 

These examples create a pinwheel of results that build consumer trust, create a safer food system, and optimize efficiencies. GS1 US and McKinsey & Company found economic upside could lead to:

  1. $3 billion in traceability benefits to the fresh produce industry
  2. $60,000 in savings per retail location on improved inventory and ordering capabilities
  3. 0.8-3.4% topline growth as consumer’s willingness to pay for traceable products is realized

In many instances, the future state is already in progress. Compliance labeling facilitated by the Produce Traceability Initiative is standard practice at large retailers. Traceability software has been implemented across various parts of the supply chain.

Fusionware CEO, Creg Fielding, put it best when speaking to the future of traceability.

In a macro sense – the greater visibility one has, the better the traceability.  In fact, we are tracking the generational seed for one customer.  When you can capture the traceability starting at this stage, all the way through to the store shelf, you can gain much better insights across the supply chain and the processes in place. You can also better understand where a breakdown in the system happened.  This, in turn, increases the speed in which you can trace back for recalls.  We have streamlined this process in a big way for our customers.   As you know, there are hundreds of recalls in a given year, so speed and efficiency are paramount.

Creg Fielding, Fusionware CEO

The traceability era in food and produce is here. Now it’s time for supply chain partners to work together, optimize systems and processes, and create the new normal.