Blockchain is often the tool of choice by food industry companies in improving food safety. However, there are currently other traceability technologies available on the market as well.
“COVID has forced almost all businesses to adjust their business models to survive and thrive with the new reality,” says Matt Brown, CEO, Wherefour, Petaluma, CA. “They want to find ways to keep employees safe in the workplace while ensuring traceability and other requirements are met.”
Brown says that he’s seeing an increase in the number of businesses that understand they need to consider how to operate more remotely with mobile and cloud-based solutions for traceability and other needs.
“Having effective technology for working remotely applies directly to traceability at a time when employees critical to an effective recall response may not be immediately available. Traceability technology provides the necessary information quickly and without the need for anyone to be on-site to retrieve what is needed,” he explains.
Businesses also are looking for ways to ensure ingredient and finished product traceability requirements are met when fewer members of their staff can be in the same space at the same time, he adds.
“In the warehouse or production floor, fully mobile technology means that staff can work independently with their hand-held devices and bar code scanners rather than entering data on a shared device or having to congregate in an office. We're seeing increased interest in traceability and ERP technology from smaller companies and those that previously preferred old school paper and spreadsheets to manage inventory. COVID has spurred them to think about the need to implement traceability and automate their operations,” Brown explains.
Regarding blockchain, Brown says that companies, including major players like Walmart, are experimenting with blockchain, but industry-wide, standardized blockchains don’t exist yet.
“We’ve designed Wherefour traceability logs to connect with blockchains so we’re ready when they do become a reality. In the meantime, we monitor developments in each of the segments we serve and are ready to jump in when a standard gains ground.”
Jim Taylor, senior vice president – information technology, Transportation Insight, Hickory, NC, says that blockchain has been adopted more in order to facilitate tighter controls and quicker reaction times.
“The ability to trace back a problem in the supply chain in a fraction of the time along with identifying specific points of origins can have a positive impact across consumers, retailers, distributors and suppliers,” he explains.
Jeremy Williams, product consultant, FlexiBake, Vancouver BC, says that traceability has been one of the most important aspects of food and drink production for decades, and the COVID-19 pandemic has shown that quick, detailed traceability has become even more important.
“FlexiBake ERP tracks the raw materials across many levels of recipes through to the customer and allows you to bring up a detailed list of customers who received product with a specific lot in under 15 seconds. Being able to action a recall ASAP is key to saving lives in this industry; gone are the days of 6-hour or multi-day recalls,” he notes.
Kraig Adams, vice president, blockchain, GS1 US, Ewing, NJ, says that if we look back at the past year, it’s important to segment the year by pre-COVID-19 and post-COVID-19 timeframes, because the crisis changed the way visibility and traceability are viewed in the supply chain.
“Pre-COVID-19, the food industry was making great progress on standards-based collaboration as trading partners worked together on creating a proper foundation for successful implementations of emerging technology, such as blockchain. For example, the GS1 US Cross-Industry Blockchain Discussion Group published a guideline providing best practices for blockchain implementation, outlining vital GS1 Standards that need to be in place to facilitate systems interoperability and data quality for visibility and traceability, as well as other use cases,” he says.
Since COVID-19, the industry is continuing to collaborate and make progress toward end-to-end traceability, but stakeholders are more driven, Adams notes.
“The huge spikes in grocery demand, the inability to divert food earmarked for foodservice into retail grocery, and strong consumer preference for contactless shopping, have all become major catalysts for driving traceability forward and creating a more agile supply chain,” he explains. “Various industry sectors and consumers are also increasingly wanting to know the source or provenance of a product as they make buying decisions.”
This is a capability which a distributed ledger technology can provide efficiently when proper identification of the product using a Global Trade Item Number (GTIN) and the product location using a Global Location Number (GLN) are optimized across a blockchain ecosystem, Adams continues.
“Also, more recently, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) unveiled the New Era of Smarter Food Safety blueprint, which outlined their vision for a safer and tech-enabled food system. Traceability is a major focus of this initiative, as is the exploration of blockchain and other emerging technologies to bring consumers the level of transparency and reassurance of safety they desire,” he says.
The FDA is driving this forward with industry in an open collaboration this year to ensure the food supply chain more accurately reflects 21st century consumer needs, and leaves behind the inefficient, manual, often paper-based systems that slowed down recalls and hindered real-time information sharing, Adams notes.
Christine C. Akselsen, CEO, Kezzler, Oslo, Norway, says the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed traceability even higher up the agenda.
“Consumers are demanding access to accurate information about food products and their provenance, more than can be displayed on a traditional product label. Recent events have also shone a light on the fragility of supply chains, where a lack of end-to-end visibility has caused severe disruptions. An increasing number of brands are turning their focus to improved traceability as a matter of urgency. Unit-level traceability and authentication are at the core of resilient and agile supply chains, enabling companies to be better equipped to deal with any future disruptions,” she says.
Pratik Soni, founder and CEO, Omnichain, El Segundo, CA, says that traceability is always going to be top of mind in the food industry—but with consumers cooking at home more and eating out less in light of COVID-19, there is going to be even greater scrutiny into the supply chain of grocery store products.
“Consumers will want to know that the foods they purchase for their families can be trusted. They will also want to know that these products were handled properly in the journey from source to shelf,” Soni explains.
Achieving the necessary end-to-end traceability to support and communicate this knowledge has historically been a challenge for food companies due to data silos between participants and a reliance on largely manual or paper-based processes, Soni notes.
“Increasingly, however, more organizations are looking to digital technologies for help. These are solutions like the Internet of Things (IoT), which can collect extensive real-world data from every point of the supply chain, and blockchain, which provides a distributed ledger to connect and share complete, immutable and traceable data from across the value chain,” he says.
Rick Zaffarano, senior client solutions director, Transportation Insight, says that more and more pilot programs are being developed, led by some very large retailers, like Walmart.
“When it comes to food traceability, brand reputation is at stake and any organization serving consumers in today’s marketplace cannot afford a visibility failure. Big Tech is getting involved because accessing fast, reliable and transparent traceability is beyond a daunting task,” he says.
“Complexity in the food supply chain makes it difficult to assemble information from diverse sources. A unified view of product movement from origin to end consumer not only supports food safety, it is critical to a modern, efficient supply chain that can be adjusted during a disruption,” Zaffarano notes.
Dawn Gorey, ERP product manager, SYSPRO USA, Costa Mesa, CA, says that with the dramatic increase in recalls within the food industry over the last 5 years, lot traceability has become paramount for all food and beverage companies, distributor and manufacturer alike.
“The need for tracking in the industry has become more demanding and therefore more regulated. Manual records are no longer sufficient to be able to react in a timely manner should the need arise to perform a recall. Lives could be at stake, and no one is going to take chances. Every distributor, every manufacturer, every supplier to these companies are doing everything to mitigate any potential outbreak and danger,” she notes.
Important factors for traceability in foodservice operations
“[One factor is] ensuring operators have the right supplier partners to support their sustainability or consumer transparency on food sources,” says Bill Michalski, chief solutions officer, ArrowStream, Chicago.
Finding new suppliers is a real struggle for buyers at most restaurant chains, from the very first step of learning whom among thousands of foodservice manufacturers are providing the category of product they are seeking, he explains.
“For years, the primary tool utilized by buyers has been Google-searching or walking the floor of a trade show. That’s just not good enough when you are trying to locate the supplier that best fits your business. Do they meet your desired specifications? Do they already ship through your distribution partners? Are they 100% GS1-enabled? Do they meet your quality and testing standards?”
To assist in matching restaurant chains with potential suppliers, ArrowStream built Supplier Discovery, a database of over 7,500 foodservice suppliers, automatically organized according to a chain’s purchasing profile, and searchable by products, distribution channels, and key capabilities, Michalski adds.
“Suppliers have access to update their profile information directly to ensure they are considered by the right potential customers, providing contacts, plant locations, product catalogs, and more. Our operator customers are able to search for vendors that align with their own sustainability initiatives or consumer transparency on food sources. Our goal is a win-win for both sides—by providing a single platform for the foodservice industry, we’re enabling operators and suppliers to connect, collaborate and accelerate their growth strategies,” he notes.
Another factor is efficiently resolving inventory issues with partners to minimize supply chain and environmental impact, Michalski adds.
“ArrowStream also understands that supply chain teams are stretched thin and developed Inventory QuickStart in May of 2020 as a quick-to-deploy, easy-to-use solution to help operators stay on top of issues encountered during COVID-19 while reducing their workload. With instant access to data on product movement across the supply chain and configurable exception-based analysis, operators are able to see and address the issues that need immediate attention.”
Kate Hubbard, director of marketing, ArrowStream, says that another factor is the ability to quickly resolve food quality issues with supply chain partners to protect the end consumer.
“A strong food quality and safety program includes not only being able to react quickly when an issue arises to ensure customer safety, but also to implement processes to help prevent issues from happening,” she explains. “ArrowStream’s 20 years in the foodservice industry has helped to develop a tried-and-tested internal process that our operator customers utilize on a regular basis, no matter the level of impact, that allows for improved reaction times, communication and collaboration with stores and supply chain partners.”
Communicating quickly and at once is critical, especially in a recall situation, Hubbard notes.
“ArrowStream allows for communication on a large scale and contains it within a single location, saving time when operators need to move fast. Our technology also automates tasks and provides a workflow that facilitates collaboration and fast resolution with stores, suppliers and distributors.”
Andrew Brooks, head of sustainability, Olam Cocoa, London, says that one of most important factors for traceability in the cocoa industry is access to accurate and reliable data.
“This has been a significant challenge for the industry in the past, due to a lack of infrastructure and internet connectivity in many cocoa-growing regions across Africa, South America and South-East Asia. With the correct information, you can better understand how the cocoa beans are produced, the journey they have taken from farm to processing, and asses the effectiveness of the social and environmental programs that are in place on farms,” he explains.
Williams says that the single most important thing that factors into traceability is detail.
“Ensuring lot numbers are double-checked to validate that production teams are following what is in the work orders is imperative for accurate traceability. FlexiBake ERP manages this by having ingredient and product pickers record lot numbers and batch numbers so that a supervisor can review the information when closing production. Inventory adjustments can be done quickly and easily with FlexiBake ERP on the cloud as you can use FlexiBake ERP on tablets throughout the facility to adjust for any spills or wasted product,” he explains.
Adams says that all food supply chain partners are concerned with the short and long-term effects of a food recall; however, they impact the foodservice industry differently than retail grocery.
“Foodservice products are used and consumed faster and, on the spot, so having a real time view of products as they move through the supply chain can prove to be critical for protecting restaurant guests and intercepting affected product before it reaches them. Consumers now have increasingly higher expectations of food safety and recall recovery,” he continues.
A recent survey conducted by FoodLogiQ found that more than 50 percent of respondents expect food companies to fully address a recall or foodborne illness within just 1-2 days, Adams notes.
“This is in a day and age when foodborne illness outbreaks are still being traced months after a product has sickened customers. Over the past several years, GS1 US initiative members have worked hard to create guidance on the use of GS1 Standards to facilitate more efficient tracing of products in the event of a recall or withdrawal. The foodservice industry is also actively exploring innovations such as RFID technology, blockchain and artificial intelligence to create more real-time certainty around where products are going, where they have been, and what’s available and safe for consumption.”
Zaffarano says that companies need to have trusted upstream suppliers that can provide a quick response, on demand, for any item.
“You have to be able to trust the data that you are acquiring from those partners, and you have to able to trust your own internal data management. One failure can quickly create downstream risk that jeopardizes customer experience.”
It is absolutely essential to have a response plan in the event of a disruption, whether it involves contamination, transportation failure or a chain of custody question, he recommends.
“Proactively preparing contingencies for what to do, and how to do it, positions you to control the negative impact of the problem. Operationally, food safety practices in the handling and preparation is critical.”
Important factors for traceability for food and beverage manufacturers
“Ease of use is number one. Traceability is easy in concept but difficult to implement as inventory lots are produced into finished goods and sent to various customers. The right technology can automate that process and produce reports at the push of a button,” recommends Brown.
Working with an ERP enforces consistency by maintaining discipline in implementing processes and procedures across the organization. A good system will encourage and enforce standards, he says.
“Cost to implement and maintain traceability technology is also important. Today’s technology can provide very powerful and easy-to-use solutions without prohibitive costs.”
Brown says that technology can automate some of the time consuming and tedious aspects of manufacturing reducing the chance for human error or inattention to detail.
“Reports are updated in real time and available nearly instantly if needed in a recall. It also allows work to be done from virtually anywhere with 24/7 monitoring of operations. Technology is always on duty, even in a pandemic,” he says.
Gorey says that food and beverage manufacturers have a tougher, more stringent requirement for traceability.
“From the raw ingredient all the way to the final product, and every step between, must be tracked. This includes food handling within a controlled environment to ensure no outside contaminants are introduced into the product. In addition, not only do they need to be aware and identify the movements and environment within the factory, they also need to ensure the packaging and logistic companies the same standards and protocols in maintaining a contaminant-free environment,” she notes.
A recall plan must be developed and periodically tested to make sure that they can get the tracking from farm to fork within an extremely tight timeframe, Gorey says.
“An annual, or semi-annual, mock recall should form part of their Validation plan to ensure their system of record can perform and give them the necessary reports within the 2-hour timeframe.”
Isaac Olvera, commodities and data analyst, ArrowStream, Chicago, says that aside for the benefits of traceability, a main factor that is important to implementing traceability is often standardization of information flows (often referred to as being "data agnostic").
“Utilizing proprietary naming conventions, colloquialisms, or non-standard labeling practices creates barriers to both the track and the trace components. Proprietary software or data warehousing makes information flows more difficult but companies such as ArrowStream that collect invoice information across the supply chain can utilize a more standardized approach to complex sets of diverse data.”
Williams says that the most important thing that food and beverage manufacturers can do is to properly train their staff.
“FlexiBake’s implementation team works closely with new businesses to ensure that not only is the team properly trained, but that they can onboard new employees in the future. This futureproofing is key to ensuring that the business’ traceability plans will not collapse if one or more key team members move on to new opportunities.”
Adams says that, first, the digitization of the entire supply chain is critical.
“I believe we will see an acceleration of digital transformation strategies among food and beverage companies as a result of our new COVID-influenced reality and the FDA’s focus on tech-enabled traceability. This means making every effort we can to bring supplier partners into the digital age and help them adapt more agile supply chain tools and strategies that leverage foundational GS1 Standards for data interoperability. This will be the key to faster and more accurate traceability,” he recommends.
Also, the unique identification of products and a standard way to trace them through the supply chain allows all partners to speak the same language when it comes to the exchange of product information, he notes.
“This couldn’t be more critical today, as consumers rely on detailed product listings to make purchase decisions, particularly when we are opting for more online grocery shopping during the pandemic. More conscious consumers want to know where a product comes from and why certain ingredients are used. Traceability programs contribute to this level of consumer engagement and both will certainly be part of our next new normal.”
Soni says that for food and beverage manufacturers, product provenance remains key, especially in the highly profitable organic and natural foods market.
“Brands in this space need to guarantee consumers that if a label says it’s ‘organic,’ ‘GMO-free’ or ‘allergen-free,’ they are getting exactly what they paid for. There shouldn’t be a drop of doubt in the product’s integrity. If there is a mislabeling problem, then traceability is also critical for identifying and recalling the affected lots or batches, rather than a sweeping recall that only leads to unnecessary waste and losses,” he notes.
Having an effective recall strategy in place can actually improve your brand image and mitigate damages to your reputation in the event of an incident, Soni finishes.
Zaffarano agrees with this, and recommends having a master plan, for traceability purposes.
“It is impossible to over-estimate the value of a master plan that includes demand response contingencies based on modelling of your current supply network stakeholders and alternatives that might provide support during a disruption. You need to know your supply chain partners, and potential partners that might be able to support improved service,” he notes.
From there the ability to assemble diverse supply chain data allows checkpoint monitoring, and it supports decision-making around emergency response, Zaffarano says.
“Technology-enabled freight invoice audit coupled with business intelligence reporting can be critical to monitoring performance of service providers from a cost and time-in-transit perspective. It can also inform proactive communications that protect perception with consumers.”
Improving food industry traceability with technology
David Maloni, EVP analytics, ArrowStream, says that data-driven technology has a rapidly growing rate of adoption, making it easier than ever to drive true collaboration across the food industry.
“Food industry trading partners historically have been siloed. This has led to pinched traditional margin strategies and stale product offerings. Through collaboration, trading partners in the food industry can win the consumer together through supply chain efficiencies, driving lower costs to all partners and creating a story for the products that today’s consumer craves,” he advises.
Consumers will need to continue to push for food with a story through all economic times, and that story includes lowering the carbon footprint of the industry, Maloni says.
“Data driven technology will enable the food production supply chain to battle climate change as well as provide the food story transparency that is needed to capture higher costs. The most important roles/factors are and will continue to be the consumer, data and technology.”
Williams recommends FlexiBake ERP, which is now accessible via the cloud.
“As technology advances ERP companies need to look at how they can use new tools to simplify processes while retaining the detail required to ensure traceability. With FlexiBake ERP on the Cloud, food and beverage manufacturers can access FlexiBake ERP on tablets to expedite many activities including inventory counts, which has saved a lot of our customers many hours per month, and has limited user error as you are updating inventory numbers while counting,” he notes.
“Introducing digital scales to ensure that recipes are followed properly has also been a great advantage to many of our customers. As we look to the future, we are excited at the prospect of what new breakthroughs can be used to empower our customers.”
Adams says that technology—whether it’s blockchain, or AI, or IoT—can help the food industry yield traceability results.
“For instance, the now-famous mango traceability pilot conducted by Walmart a couple of years ago showed how blockchain can be a game changer in reducing product tracing times from weeks to mere seconds. It’s important to point out that blockchain or any other emerging technology is not a magic solution for effective traceability, but will continue to be a component of a larger solution.”
Traceability is a process and a system of collaborative partners working together to share interoperable data in an efficient way, he says.
“Through the use of GS1 Standards, this collaboration is already made possible. A layer of technology can add to the partners’ data sharing capabilities, but it does not exist separate or apart from the supply chain best practices that lead to real-time visibility.”
Akselsen says that unit-level traceability can enable brands to talk directly with end consumers and share the product journey with them.
“This can include information on production and packaging dates, quality checks and information about ingredients or preparation instructions. Increased awareness of counterfeit products has negatively impacted consumer trust. By providing a way to authenticate each product in real-time, companies can help protect public health and reassure consumers that they are purchasing genuine products.”
Brands also benefit from the data intelligence provided by traceability solutions, she continues.
“They can run real-time inventory checks down to batch level and fulfill existing and future legislative traceability requirements. Improving internal processes allows brand owners to reduce risk along with inventory shrinkage and waste. Data driven consumer insights allow stakeholders to make better business decisions while improving the consumer experience helping to protect and grow the brand.”
The Kezzler platform for serialization and traceability can be used in any industry where unit level traceability is needed either due to government requirements, consumer demand or internal drivers such as lack of product flow visibility or other inefficiencies, Akselsen notes.
“Over the past 18 years Kezzler has deployed digital solutions to support traceability and authentication across the globe, from sweet potatoes in the US to infant formula in China.”
Brooks says that technology has a huge roll to play in improving traceability.
“It makes it possible to track cocoa at different stages in the supply chain, and gather valuable farm, community and sustainability data, even in the most remote cocoa-growing locations,” he expands.
“We’re harnessing this potential through the Olam Farmer Information System (OFIS) which is used across our global supply chain. This technology not only allows us to identify the farmer or community our cocoa has come from; it also helps us to make our supply chain more sustainable. That’s because we can use it to record the agricultural practices of individual farms, as well as GPS map data like farm size. OFIS then uses that data to create personalized Farm Development Plans to help each farmer increase their yields while also adopting more sustainable farming practices.”
Soni says that technology can help improve food industry traceability by digitizing information about the supply chain, making it readily consumable, trackable and actionable.
“Blockchain is a tangible solution for enabling the digital transformation journey by serving as the connective layer that digitizes and brings together once disparate supply chain data. Once companies connect their data on blockchain, they can combine it with other technologies such as barcodes or QR codes that consumers can scan to reveal a product’s complete story all the way back to the source. This type of marriage between supply chain management and product marketing helps communicate to consumers that your company cares, which builds up brand value and confidence in the supply chain,” he recommends.
He says that for companies embarking on their digital transformation journey, he would advise to begin digitizing data at the source—whether it’s a farmer or ingredient supplier.
“It’s much easier to navigate and work forward than it is to start backwards. Getting your supply base to share their data and adopt digital tools may be a challenge initially though. But if you explain that the resulting benefits and business value will be shared across all participants, it’s much easier to obtain their buy-in. After all, supply chain is a team sport. If you work together, the entire supply chain can collectively grow and see exponential returns on investment,” Soni expands.
Gorey recommends an ERP system, like SYSPRO ERP, which should be able to track and provide the visibility necessary to provide faster results from their supply chain during a recall.
“A recall of any magnitude has the potential to have a huge financial impact, not to mention damage to the brand name. A food and beverage manufacturer should take the time to create a robust traceability and recall plan, and an ERP system should be able to support that plan in its entirety,” she suggests.
“The ideal ERP should provide full visibility throughout the value chain to ensure quality and continued compliance with FDA requirements. It should be able to trace, identify, isolate, report, quarantine, and place affected products on hold quickly and with minimum disruption.”
Zaffarano says that the challenges [of traceability] are immense, but emerging solutions continue to hold promising outcomes, particularly as related to traceability and validation of data gathered across increasingly diverse food supply networks that span the globe.
“Technology can support a unified view of this information so that suppliers, service providers and end consumers can make decisions that support their desired outcomes.”