End-to-end accountability in the food supply does far more than safeguard against potential disasters, writes Geoff Furniss
Every step of the food supply chain, from farm to table, is under pressure to improve traceability. Regulators, retailers and consumers increasingly demand it, and by helping to prevent food scandals, brand reputations can depend on it. But there’s more to this story than meets the eye.
It’s widely understood that traceability is important for food safety, but less well known that it can also help food producers and processors improve profitability. At this stage in the supply chain, sorting machines – important for ensuring traceability, food quality, and food safety – can also help reduce food waste, analyse yield, and optimise operating efficiencies. Moreover, sorting technologies can help food producers and processors win business by ensuring that their products attain a quality standard appealing to retailers.
The core need for traceability is trust. Just think of food-related news headlines in recent years: melamine in dairy products, salmonella in peanut butter, horsemeat passing as beef – and fatal listeria outbreaks. Amplified by social media, bad news spreads far and fast. Whether these scandals are caused through fraud or by accident, higher levels of traceability would prevent many from ever happening. If food scandals do occur, traceability can make it easier to track down the sources of contamination or adulteration. In the case of E.Coli in romaine lettuce, for example, the cause was quickly found to be water in a canal in Arizona, but it was impossible to traceback all affected products because bagged salads contained ingredients from multiple ranches and their records of origin were not thorough enough. More detailed and standardised record-keeping is essential.
Consumers want this complete story, and they want to access it through digital channels such as websites and smartphone apps. This matters because consumers increasingly make food purchasing decisions based on the detailed product information available. Recognising this, Walmart China last year launched a traceability project detailing the provenance of fresh packaged vegetables, accessed through a QR code scanned by a smartphone.
This is just the start of a big trend which market researchers anticipated several years ago. According to the 2016 Label Insight Transparency ROI Study, 73 percent of consumers (and 86 percent of mothers aged 18 to 34) will pay more for food which has information ‘transparency’. More than half – 56 percent – are more likely to trust a brand which gives additional information about how their food is produced, handled and sourced. Retailers know this of course – which means food producers and processors who want business from retail chains must find ways to gather and standardise the data.
Consumers increasingly make food purchasing decisions based on the details product information available
As confirmation of this need, the multinational grocery chain Walmart is again a good example: the brand’s Food Traceability Initiative, launched in September 2018, requires suppliers in the US to trace fresh, leafy produce from farm to table in real time. Initially suppliers have to provide one-step-back traceability, but by October 2019 there must be end-to-end traceability which goes all the way back to the farm. It won’t be long before such level of detail is also required by other retailers.
This may all sound daunting, but food producers and processors can achieve these levels of accountability through technology such as sensor-based sorting machines. And, complementing these are other advancements like cloud-based data platforms. By turning sorting machines into connected devices that generate process data, these innovations are transforming sorting from an operational process into a strategic management tool for fact-based decision-making at every step of the value production chain.