Throughout the food supply chain, food supplies come from many places, travel for long distances, and are handled by many people. As such, contamination – and subsequent food recalls – are a fact of life for many food and beverage (F&B) companies.
Even so, the first half of 2018 has seen an abnormal spate of recalls from some of the world’s largest growers and manufacturers.
- In March and April of 2018, consumers across the US were urged to throw out any and all romaine lettuce they had sitting in their fridge.
- In May, the maker of Spam recalled 114 tons of canned meat.
- In July, salad served at McDonald’s were found to contain Cyclospora in an outbreak that sickened over sixty people across seven states.
Regulations such as the Food Safety Modernization Act make F&B companies responsible for policing their supply chains, but it still takes a long time for companies to trace the sources of contamination and eliminate it. Why is that, and how can F&B manufacturers speed up the process?
Evolving from Pen-and-Paper Record Keeping
Food travels a lot. For example, your average mango might travel thousands of miles from a farm in South or Central America, to a processing center in the Midwest, and finally to a supermarket on the East Coast where it is sold and consumed. A lot of hands touch that mango during its journey, and if some of those hands aren’t wearing gloves, that’s where problems begin to occur.
If consumers start getting sick from a food or beverage product, it’s the manufacturer’s job to figure out where the contamination was introduced, how it was introduced, and how much other food passed through that point. At present, it is a slow, daunting, and grinding task. Seven days is considered a blindingly fast pace in terms of F&B traceability. Why is that?
Let’s return to the example above. At the start of the journey, the small-scale mango farmer may be using pen-and-paper records to keep track of what they sell. The transportation company may be using a depreciated copy of Excel on a PC from 2004. Only in a few areas will you see adoption of modern ERP systems – in a recent survey of digital transformation priorities in F&B, ERP adoption was ranked the lowest. Without modern ERP, however, it’s difficult for inspectors to get a holistic view of the supply chain.
Building a Digital Supply Chain for F&B
Adoption of software that promotes visibility within the supply chain is critical to the F&B manufacturing sector. Ideally, one would be able to scan a barcode or QR code on a pallet of food and trace its entire journey from origin to destination. This would give users the ability to flag events that might cause contamination. How would this look?
Let’s return – one last time – to our example with the mango. A food inspector scans a barcode on the pallet that the mango was shipped on. This immediately loads the entire list of facilities that the mango passed through on the way to grocery store. The inspector notes that one of these facilities is highlighted – some of the freezers broke down while the mango was passing through. It’s possible that the fruit was exposed to the kind of high temperatures that would encourage the growth of bacteria.
Although modern ERP systems are a low priority for F&B manufacturers, they have the potential to provide astonishing visibility to the supply chain. This would give the industry the ability to quickly expedite food recalls – or even eliminate them altogether. This is a sorely needed capability for the industry. After all, the cost of a recall isn’t just measured in the lost food itself. Recalls and contamination lead to reputational damage – from which it may be impossible to rebuild.