Embracing digital food transparency – Food & Drink Business

Incoming regulations and standards are making the case plain: food manufacturers need to prepare for a digital food supply chain. Mettler-Toledo ProdX technology manager Ian Scott-Mance explains where to start.

There are benefits for all in the transformation to a digital food supply chain, yet right now most food manufacturers are hesitant. In their hearts, they know that a move from manual track and trace to digital is coming. In their heads is a growing realization that it could be good for their business.

With legislators and retailers starting to insist on digital transparency in the food supply chain, it is not an exaggeration to say it will be critical for the continued existence of every food manufacturer.

Many have nagging worries about cost and complexity, some are assessing the technological trends, biding their time for the right wave to surf. In reality, there is no need to be either complex or expensive; the technology already exists.

The first step – and where you should start – is data collection. Data must be shared throughout the supply chain, which can only happen if the data is in an accessible form.

Even the smallest component of your process can participate. For example, a product supplier accurately weighs each load on industrial scales before being transported from the farm.

Keeping that data (the weight and logistics information) in a database puts the farmer in a position to contribute to the digital transformation of the food supply chain. It potentially also allows the end consumer to see the origin and, if the data is captured, the field from which they were harvested.

Early adopters

This concept of information sharing is critical to digital track and trace, enabling the identification of the whereabouts of specific batches of food at any given time in the past or present, in a matter of seconds. However, digital food chain transparency has already been shown by early adopters to benefit food manufacturers.

US company Golden State Foods (GSF) has a manufacturing facility producing more than 72 million kilograms of beef products per year. The company partnered with IBM to create a digital supply chain system based on blockchain technology, Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) and the Internet of Things (IoT).

GSF’s chief technology officer Guilda Javaheri said the pilot project was about more than digitizing the supply chain.

“It’s about reducing the hours of reconciliations that companies go through. It also optimizes the inventory throughout the supply chain. You are going to be able to ultimately be able to have the right product at the right time and the right place.

“Can you imagine how much wastage today can be prevented with that kind of information? That’s really the common goal everyone is striving towards, ”Javaheri said.

Blockchain explained

Blockchain is a chain of linked blocks of data records, each bearing a cryptographic hash of the previous block. Once data is recorded in a block, this then becomes part of the cryptographic hash in the next block, so data cannot be altered retroactively without changing all subsequent blocks that show that data.

It essentially creates a digital ledger of transactions that is duplicated and distributed across a network of participating computer systems. The technology is therefore considered secure and incorruptible.

Systems, devices, and sensors that are capable of automated machine-to-machine communication can all be part of a blockchain system, including food safety machines such as product inspection devices.

Starting steps

Many food manufacturers will find – perhaps to their surprise – they are already in a good position to start the process of transformation. The technology may seem complex, but its implementation is relatively straightforward.

The change of culture, however, will need to be carefully managed. Staff need to understand and accept that within the blockchain other organizations can see their company’s data. The transparency will be real and immutable. Leadership will be required to drive change and demonstrate commitment.

The four-step program to develop a digital food supply chain

  1. Start auditing the nature of the food transformation data gathered at your plant and whether you are collecting the necessary data for digital track and trace at batch level.
  2. Look strategically at how the data is collected and stored. Analogue technology must be replaced with digital; if possible, manual processes need to be automated; data held on local servers should be migrated to a data hub on the premises or to the cloud.
  3. Start talking to blockchain technology providers to get an understanding of the issues at stake and what can be achieved. IBM is currently the front runner here, but there are other potential providers. System suppliers such as those in product inspection can also help.
  4. Consider the cultural changes that will be required by implementing your digital transformation.

Getting in good shape

Amidst the talk of blockchains and connectivity, of digital and data, it is easy to lose sight of what this technological transformation is all about.

It is about providing a system in which batches of food can be quickly tracked and traced, and in which critical actions taken by companies dealing with that food in the supply chain can be proven and trusted.

Ultimately, it is about demonstrating that the necessary due diligence has been shown along the supply chain – from farm to fork – to deliver safe food to the consumer.

It is unavoidable that there will be disruption and cost to food manufacturers as the industry transitions to a digital supply chain. However, it also needs to be recognized that early entrants will gain commercially.

A digital future is not just in the future, as the time to start counting and compiling, assessing, and progressing is already here.

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