Until about World War II, most Americans –indeed, most people in general – had few questions about the origins, growth, and preparation of their food. They had grown it themselves or bought it from a butcher or grocer they had known and trusted for years.
Today, even farmers know little about most of the food they eat, bought prepackaged at a supermarket or from a restaurant or fast food outlet.
Packaged foods do provide government-mandated nutritional labels and, increasingly, notations identifying the country of origin, which also appear on fresh produce. But such labels tell the consumer nothing about the nature of the original animals or crops, what feed or fertilizer or pesticides were used, or the level of safe handling maintained at each stage of the “farm-to-fork” food supply chain.
And, as most government and food industry officials acknowledge, if average consumers even read what information is provided, chances are they won’t fully understand it.
But a movement that first became a driving factor in the future of the food supply chain in Europe around the turn of the century – and is growing rapidly in the United States and other first world nations – is changing what we eat, what we know about it, and how it is produced, prepared, packaged, shipped, stored, and sold: food supply chain traceability.
Perhaps the first application of traceability occurred in the 1930s with efforts to ensure “champagne” came only from a specific region of France, using specific grapes and processes. The success of that effort soon spread to similar demands on other high-end products, not only in Europe but across a world in which technology increasingly made rapid, temperature-controlled distribution of raw foods and finished products to nearly anywhere on Earth not only possible, but routine.
While the full process is both complex and, for now, falls short of its ultimate goal, traceability can be broken down into two primary components:
- Creating a complete and transparent record of a product’s history, from production on the farm or capture at sea to combination with other foods and preparation to warehousing.
- Completing that tracking with a full and accurate record of where the product goes and under what circumstances after leaving the manufacturing plant – subsequent transportation, temporary storage, and arrival at a restaurant or retailer and ultimately to the consumer.
At present, there are two goals for the food industry – safety and brand marketing – according to Vernon Smith, CEO of CAT Squared, one of the first in a growing number of companies focused on providing software and processes to bring farm-to-fork traceability closer to reality.
“It’s critical, if you have a product with a problem, to have backward traceability to know where it came from and if any other product produced at the same time may have been contaminated. It’s all about narrowing the scope of the problem and any subsequent recall. The other element is all about marketing – being able to show they have a better system for tracing their product is one way companies can market themselves,” he said.
“A lot of this is driven by the consumer, especially in Europe, but also now in the U.S. In the long run, it means a safer, more wholesome product for the consumer. Stores and restaurants also are significant drivers of this initiative. In many cases, the processor is very careful to provide a safe product, but every step in the supply chain – transport, storage,
distribution, temperature, etc. – must have someone responsible for accurate traceability.”
In assessing the global commitment of growers, processors, sellers, and consumers to food safety and traceability, Smith identified Europe as having the strictest regulations and enforcement – except for Japan, which leads all nations in this new pursuit. The United States is third, with most other first world nations close to it, followed by the rest of Asia, Latin America and, finally, Africa.
Food supply chain traceability involves more than knowing what feed was given to animals that contribute ingredients to a wide range of food products. It also means giving government agencies and giant companies with major stakes in food safety and their own reputations a way to combat a growing problem most consumers know nothing about: food fraud. That ranges from false labeling to illegal fishing operations to hazardous fake food and drink.
From November 2015 through February 2016, a joint Europol-INTERPOL investigation of such activities in 57 nations led to the seizure of 11,000 tons and 1.4 million liters of counterfeit and substandard food products. According to the Michigan State University Food Fraud Initiative, food fraud around the globe totals more than $30 billion each year. From tablet entries at the farm and fishing boat level to DNA tracing of fish, meat, and poultry to final entries by restaurants and processors into newly forming databases, governments and every entity involved in the “chain of custody” of every ingredient are cooperating globally to create and maintain ever higher levels of food supply chain traceability.
One of the newest technologies being applied to the problem has been borrowed from a completely different, but equally complex and little understood, market: bitcoin, specifically the blockchain technology underpinning it.
According to the Harvard Business Review, “At its most basic, blockchain is a vast, global distributed ledger or database running on millions of devices and open to anyone, where not just information but anything of value – money, titles, deeds, music, art, scientific discoveries, intellectual property, even votes – can be moved and stored securely and privately. On the blockchain, trust is established, not by powerful intermediaries like banks, governments and technology companies, but through mass collaboration and clever code. Blockchains ensure integrity and trust between strangers. They make it difficult to cheat.”
Applied to the food supply chain, blockchain means multiple producers of various ingredients going into an end product are listed, enabling the consumer to get a fully validated, unhackable list of components and their details anywhere at any time.
“Ultimately, the idea is to have a barcode that can be queried to give the full genealogy. The challenge is building the database behind it. Several companies are trying to apply this technology to food chain traceability, so right now we see multiple, different approaches from actual producers, large retailers or wholesalers, companies such as IBM and companies that focus on producing software solutions for food producers,” Smith explained. “But at this moment, I don’t believe there is an all-encompassing solution.”
The food supply chain is a multitrillion-dollar global enterprise, comprising everything from spices and small plants grown on apartment balconies (and, increasingly, sold to local restaurants and “farmers’ markets”) to giant agricultural combines, food processors, retailers such as Wal-Mart, and direct food purveyors such as McDonald’s. The sheer volume of protein, vegetable, and flavoring sources involved means multiple sources may provide content to the same end item going to the consumer.
Full transparency and farm-to-fork traceability means enabling the consumer or anyone else to quickly and easily identify the specific source, down to an individual laying hen or fruit tree. Placing that much information into a traditional package label would be impossible, so future labels will see most information compressed into a barcode or, more likely, a QR code that can be scanned by a smartphone and link to as much detail online as anyone would want.
Another vital component in food safety, especially in an era where something acquired in the most remote parts of the world today may be on your table tomorrow, is often overlooked, by consumers and even retailers: How is it transported and what happens to it, both in transit and in short-term storage?
Companies such as the decade-old Swiss-based Arviem AG provide real-time cargo monitoring services, ranging from precise records on when and how long doors are open on temperature-controlled containers to geo-location, precision estimated time of arrival, environmental fluctuations, etc. The value of such information increases if there are delays, recalls, changes in origin or destination – all of which can be detrimental to the safe consumability of the products being transported.
“This end-to-end visibility is the key to resilient supply chains and becomes especially important when facing disruptions in the supply chain, or crisis situations such as recalls. The visibility and the data provided by IoT [Internet of Things] solutions in the food chain allow organizations to significantly reduce supply chain risk by enabling the company to either take action to prevent disasters or to respond to disruption by activating backup plans,” according to Arviem.
Product recalls, quality issues, tougher regulations, new industry standards, and rising costs all affect food and beverage supply chains across the globe. Real-time data acquired through end-to-end monitoring systems and supply chain visibility solutions have the potential for unprecedented improvements in supply chain performance. The insights resulting from uncovering supply chain blind spots enable supply chain managers and other senior decision-makers to reduce risk, meet environmental and import requirements, and react to disruptions in the supply chain.
Where food comes from, how it gets to the consumer, and confidence in its wholesomeness have changed dramatically in the past few decades – with even greater changes on the horizon with new agricultural and production technologies, including genetic “tweaking” to improve size or yield or shelf life. Thus the growing focus on food supply chain traceability.
“Food most definitely is safer today than before the traceability initiative, although there remain issues to be resolved, which is why we still see recalls, sometimes caused by a manufacturing facility or during transport or storage,” Smith noted. “Consumers, whether the final customer or wholesalers and retailers, drive the initiative a lot more than government agencies. We are seeing a much more discerning consumer, in many areas, often willing to pay more if they can be sure their food has not been genetically modified or can be traced.
“I believe we ultimately will get to the point where products will have labels you can scan with your smartphone and find out everything about that product – when and where it was produced, what ingredients it contains, where those came from, etc., moving us closer to full farm-to-fork traceability. In first world countries, we’re moving very rapidly toward that, much more quickly than 20 years into the future.”
Caption for top photo: A chef prepares wagyu beef in a restaurant. Thanks to today’s greater emphasis on traceability initiatives to increase the transparency of the food supply chain, consumers will be able to more easily access information about the food they purchase in stores or order at restaurants and be assured of its safety and integrity. Credit: Konstantin Kalishko
This article was originally published in the 2018 edition of U.S. Agriculture Outlook.