Overcoming the challenges of food traceability


by Frederic Clulow

Food traceability

What are the main priorities for companies and countries with regard to food traceability? While food safety is always a top priority, there are a number of ways tracking and tracing food products throughout the entire supply chain deliver value.

Yet, food traceability from farm to table or grass to glass has always been fraught with a range of complex challenges. These challenges, though, aren’t necessarily at odds or mutually exclusive. By achieving item-level traceability through product digitization and making products connected, managing a number of applications becomes possible. For example, making recalls more targeted and efficient, giving consumers more granular and useful information about the products they consume, getting real-time visibility into supply chains and contributing to ways to measure sustainability efforts. 

Food traceability: A hierarchy of concerns

Key to food traceability success is to take into account the complex ecosystem of processes, applications and services that exist within a modern supply chain. Without being able to understand the mass data generated by this complex ecosystem, you only have hunches and educated guesses about what is happening in the supply chain. With proper data analysis based on granular traceability information we can begin to use aggregate numbers to improve such things as shelf life, enhance FIFO operations and deliver sub-minute genealogy data retrieval.

Identifying critical data capture points across the supply chain initiates the collection of this mass data through a product’s life cycle. It enables advanced data analysis, which then facilitates detailed oversight into the ramifications of actions at one point or event in the life cycle on other points in the supply chain/life cycle. For example, it can help identify the time required to reach cooling down of the core temperatures of a given product as directly related to its ultimate shelf life. 

By creating a universal connection layer to support the acquisition of data from external sources or connect to programs as diverse as mobile apps or enterprise logistics systems enables the connected products platform to deliver the most appropriate analysis to the relevant stakeholders while unifying traceability into a single source of truth.

End-to-end food traceability

Starting at the source

Let’s begin at the source. Smallholders manage over 80% of the world’s estimated 500 million small farms, providing more than US $200 billion annually in investment capital. They are the backbone of developing economies and their role contributes heavily to poverty reduction and food security. Yet  many of them have been left behind in the new economy with implications for the entire food value chain. 

The introduction of affordable technologies, such as smartphones with accessible data plans, is changing how growers across the globe operate. In turn, this facilitates their integration into the modern digital economy in what has traditionally been a data-poor environment. Mobile-first applications and PWAs with reactive workflows can make regulatory data collection as easy as possible without needing to become SMEs. They can reduce regulatory compliance costs while increasing adherence in the most (data) challenging link in the supply chain. 

Once it is in digital form this data can be shared with economic parties upstream of the food-value chain to enable their compliance and traceability objectives. The results? A democratization of data that leads to improved yields, market access and market power for growers while at its core improving the very safety of the foods we consume. 

Production and processing

From there, let’s move on to production and processing. Too many operations still rely on the good old fashioned pen and paper method to track information, leading to inconsistent reporting, data gaps, and hampering rapid informational support during a recall event. The desired end-state should be to digitize the acquisition of transformational data, quality and operational information, and combine it with upstream information to enable what I would call “one-click traceability”. Instead, we still operate in an environment where tracebacks can realistically take days, although the hope is that new requirements such as FSMA Section 204 will change that

But all products must travel a long, complex logistics web. What good is it to have production information if we lack visibility into the distribution of our products, a process through which spoilage is still very much a possibility? It is not uncommon for a product’s identifier (such as lot number, serial number, etc.), which is usually leveraged to connect traceability information, to be changed throughout its journey, breaking the data linkage.

This is why Section 204 insists on preserving a sufficiently unique Traceability Lot Code throughout the lifecycle (or until transformation). But this is not applicable in all markets, and we must still address the need to create as complete a product pedigree as we can. This is where ensuring data interoperability comes in: different supply-chain parties should ensure that they exchange relevant data using a common standard to populate their respective genealogies. We have previously written about this and the importance of interoperability here.

Food traceability: Ripe for consumers and beyond?

Or for that matter, are consumer use cases less important? Do brands need to forgo the consumer marketing and personalization opportunities that unit-level traceability enables? For example, when Mondelez wanted to differentiate its products by enabling personalized gifting, digitization and connected products let brand owners individualize their marketing campaigns to support fully personalized experiences. But why stop there? Since you have collected a fair amount of information throughout the life cycle, why not make that data available to the discerning consumer, many of whom are nowadays willing to pay more for enhanced transparency and sustainability? Now imagine extending that personalization concept to other products including your daily fruits and vegetables.

Let’s take the case of the humble papaya: according to the USDA spoilage from retail to consumer can sometimes be up to 80% mostly due to consumers being unaware of the proper ripeness or preparation of the fruit. Yet what if we could collect harvest, transport and cold-chain information and deliver a “ripeness index” individualized for each fruit to a consumer at retail with the simple scan of a smartphone? Not only would we be likely to decrease spoilage and improve the management of resources tied to papaya farming, but the consumer would undoubtedly experience greater product satisfaction. This interactive process with the customer would in turn yield valuable information back to the farming operations, which could optimize product variety and output to meet evolving tastes and demographics. 

Overcoming data challenges

This level of food traceability is not without its challenges. 

A survey of over 300 supply chain professionals carried out by Forrester and Rockwell Automation found that main technical challenges for implementing were as follows:

  1. Data fractionality: 28% of respondents they have some this data, but it exists in a variety of systems with little ability to interoperate
  2. Lack of standardization: 36% reported that no standard had been widely implemented in the organization to allow for the seamless exchange of data
  3. Data stitching (or lack thereof): 35% reported no capacity to aggregate diverse data from multiple sources into one cohesive picture through one system.

I would add one more challenge: taking an ERP-centric approach to implementing traceability, which often fails to deliver – even after extensive expenditure and resource use.

Make a meal of food traceability: Resources to learn more

Over the last few months we’ve written multiple entries addressing these. If you are on the path of digitizing your supply chain for FSMA 204 or other traceability initiative I very much encourage you to read these entries:

  1. Regarding interoperability, I suggest taking a look at our post on EPCIS 2.0
  2. On breaking down data silos on taming the data chaos, I suggest this particular piece on FSMA. 
  3. On why you should break away from an ERP-centric paradigm, I recommend this thought piece by my colleague Simen.
  4. Finally if you want to see how all these components, such as the digitization of farming data, the collection of production information and the acquisition of logistics data, come together in a coordinated symphony of information made available to the consumer (and in turn, enabling operational improvements), read on to learn how we enabled the first grass-to-glass traceability project for Europe’s largest dairy cooperative.

Achieving future-proof food traceability opens up a world of end-to-end transparency that contributes to regulatory compliance, supply chain visibility, consumer experiences, inventory management and more.

If you are ready to discuss and learn more, get in touch.