Food Traceability Technologies

The Smart Supply Chain

The International Food Information Council identified transparency as one of the “Five Food Trends To Watch in 2019.” People are not only interested in where their food comes from but have come to expect it as consumer awareness grows around the environmental (and other) impacts of the journey from “farm to fork.” Food traceability technologies, such as blockchain, radio frequency identification (RFID), digital chips, and biosensors, are often hailed as panaceas for food safety and transparency. These data-driven tools hold so much promise, in part, because sensor-based technologies enable the creation of digital databases that map information about food items as they travel through the entire food supply chain. Here’s a glimpse into how they work and the impact they are having on the agriculture and food industries.

Tagging and Tracing Produce

Comprehensive documentation and record keeping enabled by IoT devices, like digital tags and sensors, and blockchain make it easier to locate critical inventory information that can help to simplify complex logistical operations and enhance quality control. This process begins with tagging produce on the farm, typically by labeling harvest crates and containers for fruits and vegetables with a barcode or other scannable identifier. It’s at this stage that the digitization process begins. The labeling process requires additional time and labor upfront, but this early investment is necessary in order to translate the harvest into data points and enable end-to-end tracking of the produce. When distributors and retailers can scan a crate of fresh produce, they can pinpoint its original source, temperature and storage history, and access information about a product’s provenance and freshness. 

Traceability Technologies

Keeping track of food as it travels from farm to shelf through food processing and packaging, warehouse storage and distribution centers, and across transportation routes until it arrives at markets and grocery stores is a challenge. Recalls of contaminated food, like lettuce, and demands by consumers for greater transparency of the food they buy has led many major retailers to develop and adopt new technological solutions for traceability across the food supply chain. Blockchain is currently among the most popular because it uses end-to-end shared ledger technology to maintain and encrypt records that are validated with time stamps. Each entry is linked to a previous and subsequent entry, linking them all together. When one record is updated, the entire chain is too, thereby providing an unalterable record of past transactions and activities that ensures accountability and builds trust. 

In the United States, Walmart is currently leading such efforts. As America’s largest grocer, Walmart has been partnering with IBM to pilot blockchain projects for the past few years and working to bring food traceability technologies to scale. By September 20th, all of its lettuce suppliers will be required to use IBM’s Food Trust to share required data points relevant to harvests, post-harvest processing, food storage, packaging, and shipping, all part of the “Walmart Food Traceability Initiative” announced last year. The system supports communication and the sharing of information in order to reduce waste at the grocery store and at home. 

Shifting Industry Standards 

Data-driven technologies—from blockchain to predictive freight-matching platforms that optimize trucking routes—are at the forefront of food safety and transparency trends. Companies like Agrisource Data, Nexyst 360, Food LogiQ, and Ripe.io are all cropping up in response to these demands and helping to shift the industry to new standards of openness and accountability that ultimately help to build trust in the food system. Achieving full supply chain traceability through the complex, dynamic global food system remains a challenge, but new innovations in supply chain management gives us a good idea of what’s to come.

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