New technology is increasing transparency and traceability of our food supply chain – making it easier to spot the bad apples.
In an ideal world, we’d know every last detail about the food we’re eating. What’s it made of? What quality are its ingredients? How long will it keep for? Such complete transparency can cut the risk of health scares and fraudulent activity by people in the food supply chain. Equally, when a product does get contaminated, or a corrupt individual or organization is found to be using incorrect or low-quality ingredients, transparency makes the recall process much quicker and more straightforward.
In this same utopian world, we’d minimize food waste at every stage between the farm and our tables. Our foods would be fresher, packed for longer shelf-lives, and their use-by dates would be based on the actual state of the product, as opposed to being a pre-determined, theoretical date.
Of course, actually achieving all of this is incredibly complex. Foods travel huge distances before we pick them off supermarket shelves. They generally contain a long list of ingredients, many of which will have been processed in some way, possibly by multiple suppliers. Given this level of complexity in modern food, it’s clear why it’s so hard to track the source of every ingredient. Moreover, with much of our food coming from large facilities that process multiple product lines, which in turn are destined for consumption in huge geographic areas, the impact of a contamination in a single facility can be absolutely enormous.
Food scandals can leave lasting scars on food brands’ reputations. Think back to 2013 and the European horse meat scandal, for example, where numerous supermarkets withdrew products after horse meat was found in foods from a number of suppliers (it should have been beef). More importantly, contaminated foods threaten our health, like in 2003 when around 555 people were infected with Hepatitis A after dining at a restaurant in Pennsylvania. Investigators concluded that the cause was a contaminated batch of green onions. Indeed, it’s estimated that around 3,000 people in the USA die from food-borne diseases every year.
With the potential financial consequences so severe, it’s understandable why even the most profit-driven stakeholders in the food industry are hopeful that digitizing the sector will bring us closer to the ideal world we touched on at the start.
Tracking food from farm to fork
Full end-to-end transparency and traceability is what’s needed to identify the source of contaminated ingredients, especially when there’s more than one supplier involved. And there are already examples of businesses using the Internet of Things (IoT) to do exactly this. Kagome, for example, is monitoring the quality of its tomatoes in this way. It uses wireless RFID (radio-frequency identification) tags and GNSS (Global Navigation Satellite System) technology to keep track of harvests. Smart production lines then enable it to create products that meet its customers’ demands. Lastly, shipments are again tracked with RFID tags. This connected setup provides data to a range of stakeholders, including the relevant food safety authorities.
Moreover, this technique can scale to be used on more complex supply chains. Roambee, for example, offers an asset-monitoring system that keeps track of shipments, delivering both data and alerts to decision-makers in real time. As well as collecting information on temperature, humidity and pressure, sensors can detect whether a product has been handled with sufficient care.
Digitizing quality control
An important part of any food supply chain is quality control. It’s also an expensive and time-consuming part. Many products are visually inspected, and when the exterior shows signs of something potentially wrong inside, fruits and other foods must be cut open to assess the damage. So, as well as taking time and being labor-intensive, this means some perfectly edible produce never makes it to our tables.
However, thanks to hyperspectral imaging, these inspections can now be done in non-invasive ways. Better still, this approach can provide additional insights, such as the product’s ripeness and its likely shelf-life. It works by analyzing the light being reflected off the food, crunching the data using techniques such as machine learning.
ImpactVision, a supplier of hyperspectral imaging, highlighted how it can detect darkened meat, which consumers often reject. By catching it before it reaches the butcher’s counter, it can be turned into minced meat, to avoid it going to waste. This kind of imaging can also detect how ripe an avocado is to ensure it arrives in the shop at exactly the right time to enable customers to enjoy it at its best on the day of purchase.
Innovation to reduce food wastage
Incredibly, as much as 33 percent of the food produced for human consumption – some 1.3 billion tons per year – is thrown away or lost during processing. In developed countries, over 40 percent of food that gets thrown away comes from retailers and consumers. Part of the solution is to change people’s attitudes – particularly where food is available in abundance. But improving food packaging and better communicating expiration dates could also make a marked difference.
New innovations – not all of them digital – are making this possible. Take the Mimica Touch label, for which Solveiga Pakštaitė won the 2014 James Dyson Award for design. This incorporates a gel that changes consistency at the same rate as the food inside the packaging. Simply by rubbing their finger over the label, consumers can tell if the food is fresh or starting to go off. The label represents a significant step toward reducing food waste by showing whether products in people’s fridges are still fit to consume, even after their use-by dates.
All of these examples highlight the role science and engineering can play in assuring food quality and reducing waste around the world. We’re excited to see what innovation the coming years will bring.