The Next Advancement in Food Supply Chain Safety

food safety teaser

When it comes to having an awareness of what’s in the food we eat, today’s health-conscious consumers are more aware and informed than ever. From clean labels and fewer ingredients to gluten-free, chemical-free and organic options, consumers have become much more discriminating about food quality and, of course, the safety of the food they eat.

In recent years, the concept of food supply chain traceability has become not just a way to help food producers and retailers ensure food safety, but also a differentiator for businesses seeking to give consumers full transparency about where their food comes from.

Technology currently exists that will help growers, processors, distributors and retailers monitor every step of food’s journey along the supply chain and take actions to protect it along the way.

A Legislative Mandate

Consumer preferences aside, there are also regulatory drivers behind the push for better traceability.

You may be aware that in 2011, the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), set forth by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), introduced the most sweeping changes in food safety legislation in the previous 20 years. The ruling gave the FDA the legislative mandate to help secure food safety throughout the entire supply chain prior to its arrival, at the final point of preparation and consumption.

Even though the transition of presidential administrations has created some uncertainty in terms of the scope and rigor with which the ruling will be enforced, food safety and consumer-focused businesses are already adopting changes ahead of legal requirements.

In light of recent high-profile food recalls and restaurant shutdowns due to foodborne illnesses, food retailers are often reminded of just how much damage such an incident can inflict on a brand.

A major area of FSMA's focus is on prevention through temperature management, tracking and recording at all stages in the cold chain. Temperature variations could potentially contribute to many of the threats posed to food safety throughout the supply chain, including bacteria, pathogens, cross-contamination and inappropriate processing methods.

Technology Provides Actionable Insights

Traditional efforts to manage and monitor temperatures have been largely manual and produce often unpredictable or unreliable results. But with the advent of automated temperature management and reporting capabilities, operators now have access to actionable information to help prevent problems that might result in food contamination or waste throughout the supply chain journey.

While food processing facilities have long relied on more automated practices, the move toward greater automation is quickly expanding into multiple players in the supply chain.

Driven by the desire to adhere to FSMA guidelines and an interest in new technologies, automated temperature monitoring is finding broader adoption throughout the supply chain — from harvest and processing to transportation, post-processing, distribution and receiving.

Let's look at a few examples:

Transportation pallet tracking

Many leading growers have transitioned to using real-time trackers the size of a deck of cards at the transportation pallet level to determine conditions for food freshness throughout its journey. Previous methods included hand-recording temperatures at load and unload, or analog sensors that changed colors to detect out-of-range temperatures. 

Refrigerated container management

Refrigerated shipping containers have a high value ($20,000) and long life expectations. To maximize their asset life and assure users that their refrigeration systems are in optimal working order, shipping companies are deploying remote monitoring systems for intermodal containers. When they detect problems with the compressor, system run times, interior temperature or lighting conditions, they can route the container for repair. 

Of course, this same data is also valuable to monitor the condition of perishable foods transported within the container. Since some foods are harvested continents away and then shipped in large quantities via intermodal methods to consuming markets, capturing and making this container data available to the owner of the goods and the owner of the container are helping to improve safety.

Automated systems in final distribution

In the not-so-distant past, shorter trips to a retail destination meant less focus on temperature management. Today, that’s no longer the case, as much more attention is paid to the final distribution step of food’s journey. We know that even short periods of out-of-range temperatures potentially increase food safety risks, and the cumulative effect of high temperatures increases risks of bacterial growth and survival.

Loggers record temperature conditions throughout the journey and connect automatically to Wi-Fi-based systems at the final receiving point to provide nearly instant validation of safe conditions. Shorter trips mean there’s less of a need for always-on functionality, potentially reducing the cost of the solution.

Retail stores and restaurants

Grocers were among the first to use building controls to optimize refrigerated storage, provide temperature control and manage energy consumption. These systems also provide a wealth of information that store operators can leverage to help manage FSMA's food safety and documentation requirements. Many of these systems provide food quality reporting from walk-ins, reach-ins and under-counter cold storage, automating the once manual tasks of measuring and recording of case conditions, such as temperature and humidity.

What once was seen as a building management and maintenance system is rapidly gaining additional adoption to help maintain food safety. Even systems that still rely on manual actions by store employees can be augmented with IoT-connected devices and cloud-based solutions — replacing pencils and clipboards with convenient, time-saving and reliable recording directly to the cloud.

What's Next in Food Safety?

Today, the ownership and use of temperature and condition data are often limited to individual silos within the food supply chain. Not only does this data rarely follow food from farm to fork, it is also not likely to be shared downstream to provide a complete record. 

It’s a safe bet to assume that these conditions will soon change and stakeholders throughout the supply chain will make better use of automated and shared data.

Whether it's due to a regulation like FSMA, or a consumer-driven demand for safer food and less waste, it’s becoming more likely that the world’s largest retailers will voluntarily seek approaches that embrace a more complete food chain interdependence — including the capture and sharing of data at every step.

Food quality and safety are becoming true brand differentiators, and the effective use of temperature management automation throughout the supply chain could go a long way toward helping build consumer confidence. To that end, expect brands to better incorporate this data as part of their own fresh stories.

And with food safety concerns an ever-present focus of the food retail and foodservice industries, consumers and regulators alike will ask for clear traceability of food origins all the way down to the ingredient level. We’ll need these technologies to help deliver that information.

Ed McKiernan is president of Emerson’s Cold Chain, Electronics & Solutions business, which offers a broad portfolio of products and services to help ensure safety, freshness and quality for food, pharmaceuticals and other temperature-sensitive goods. Before taking on the role of president, McKiernan joined Emerson’s Cold Chain team as vice president and general manager of Enterprise Services in 2013, where he led the expansion of the company’s ProAct software and services business.

Editor's note: The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Convenience Store News.