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Today's food supply chain is a complex global web, and gaining visibility is no easy matter.
As the food supply chain continues to become more complex, manufacturers, distributors, producers, logistics providers and others wrestle with a need for greater food traceability.
Several food recalls have made headlines in recent years, and that has put pressure on companies to increase their food traceability capabilities, said Andrew Stevens, senior research director at Gartner. In the past, companies had the ability to limit the awareness of at least some incidents. Thanks to social media, even the smallest incidents can go viral very quickly, Stevens said.
"This has had an impact on the levels of prioritization," Stevens said. "Companies want to become a lot more responsive to either eliminate risks associated with their products as soon as possible or, more importantly, perhaps even be proactive."
Technology serves a critical role in this effort.
ERP to gain supply chain visibility
JJ Food Service Ltd., a food distribution company in Enfield, England, uses ERP offering Microsoft Dynamics AX in its effort to boost food traceability capabilities and address product recalls.
The integrated ERP tool includes built-in warehouse management tools that manage the expiration date of the products, the batch numbers and the serial numbers, said Mushtaque Ahmed, chief operating officer at JJ Food Service. It also helps with product traceability and product recalls.
"If a product has gone faulty after a customer has purchased from us -- maybe they found a piece of metal in a box of lamb -- the very first question the customer service or the QA [quality assurance] team will ask is, 'Can you give me the batch number, please?'" he said.
JJ Food Service can trace the product back using the ERP system's sales order processing module to determine when it was sold, which sales order includes that batch and how many other customers have been affected by that batch, Ahmed said.
"Then we can actually recall the product if need to be, or trace it back to our purchase order, all the way back to the manufacturer," he said.
Blockchain for traceability
Blockchain is another technology that has potential to help provide food traceability.
Naturipe Farms LLC in Salinas, Calif., has spent the last two years working on proof-of-concept projects, beta testing various blockchain initiatives with SAP. Naturipe is a partnership between four fresh berry growers with fields spread across the globe.
"We've looked at use cases that are farm-to-consumer and provenance tracing," said Carol McMillan, director of IT at Naturipe Farms. "We've looked at supply chain traceability, and we've looked at international trade, all using blockchain."
If SAP's blockchain product proves interoperable and is widely adopted, it could help improve freshness and transparency, McMillan said. It could also help resolve food safety issues by decreasing the time that a product is held at the port of entry, thereby providing a fresher product to the consumer.
"Blockchain provides a platform in which multiple participants can distribute data either publicly or permissioned without the use of middleware or setting up peer-to-peer connections," McMillan said. "This provides greater transparency to any data shared on the blockchain, such as provenance and certifications."
Naturipe could help ensure the provenance of a product or even all of the ingredients within a product with widespread use of blockchain, McMillan said.
The complexity of traceability
No magic solution exists to ensure food traceability.
Currently, Naturipe can track the provenance of its products through various grower interfaces and data tracking, as well as learn which grocery stores received the product or which stores picked up the product at Naturipe's distribution centers.
"It's all harvested by hand, and there are labor shortages that we deal with," McMillan said. "So being able to even apply another label or scan a label in the field is extremely challenging."
Naturipe tracks products at the pallet level using a Global Trade Item Number, a 14-digit identifier in a barcode or RFID tag that provide details about the product along with information such as package size. The company knows what farm and field fruit on every pallet that comes into inventory was harvested on, what distribution center it was delivered to and the time frames around that.
The Bioterrorism Act of 2002, a U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulation, includes a "one step forward, one step back" traceability requirement. This means each facility along the food supply chain must show where a product is going and where it came from.
"We just can't get it down to the clamshell, to the individual consumer unit," McMillan said. "If a consumer has a complaint, we would be able to track [the product] down to a section of fields that were harvested during that time frame and know where it came from."
It's much easier to provide a more granular level of traceability with products that are packed in a packing facility, versus the hand-harvested items that are packed in the field, McMillan said.