The year 2018 saw North America reeling under multiple E.coli outbreaks, with the Center for Disease Control and Prevention issuing a blanket warning against consuming the suspected source – romaine lettuce. The agency along with the Food and Drug Administration struggled to pinpoint the source for the outbreak. Similar outbreaks of food borne illnesses like Vibrio parahaemolyticus and Salmonella have also littered the past year affecting hundreds of people. Food borne illnesses cause millions of dollars worth in losses from recalls, loss in sales and damage to brand reputation. Money needs to also be spent on notifying retailers, regulatory bodies and storing or disposing of affected products and government fines.
So, what steps are the government agencies and enterprises taking to reduce the impact of such outbreaks in the future? The CDC and FDA are encouraging labels on susceptible fresh produce which clearly state the origin of the product as well as when it was harvested so that consumers can take a more informed decision while purchasing. In fact, product labels can go a long way in boosting food safety and accurately locating the ground zero for outbreaks. With digitization gaining momentum everywhere, electronic packaging and labeling solutions are the key to delivering consistent and reliable data of each product’s journey from farm to shelves.
Simplifying Complex Food Systems with Reliable Data
Food systems are highly complex. A restaurant may have bought tomatoes from multiple distributors, who themselves may have repackaged their products after sourcing them from a variety of farms. We can see how it becomes a challenge to trace the origins of each item back to its source. It is thus important to link all the diverse participants within a supply chain. Reliable and consistent data is the indispensable factor that decides the integrity of food quality and helps quickly locate the ground zero during recall situations.
The challenge presents itself in the collection, management and analysis of such a large amount of data without suffering any damage to its quality. Much of this data is maintained by distributors in their respective PIMs, but they are neither in congruence with each other nor exposed to the end consumer. But technology has advanced in leaps and bounds making it possible to transform everyday items, even fresh produce into active and intelligent objects. Bringing electronic labeling solutions and cloud computing into the fold makes it simpler to record each and every event occurring to a product. Digital tags (RFID, NFC, QR codes, data matrix codes, barcodes) on packaging and labels can be used as the medium to link fresh produce to the internet, essentially giving them a unique identity or digital twin that is capable of collecting and relaying information about itself (origins, current location, previous stops in the supply chain etc.). Thus, by converting fresh produce and all food products into connected smart products and bringing all partners within the supply chain into a shared system to maintain integrity, the end result on the shelf will be capable of accurately describing its journey to a potential buyer.
Minimizing Impact of Contaminated Food with Traceability
With certain fresh produce, food borne illnesses are unavoidable. The least we can do is to look for innovative solutions in order to contain their spread and minimize their impact. The detective work that goes into identifying the source farms for the outbreak of food borne illness is exhaustive and time consuming. By the time government officials figure out the origin, the contaminated produce has already covered a lot of ground and affected hundreds of people. Entire supplies of the suspected produce gets halted resulting in severe losses and prices of similar produce shooting up. Brands associated with the produce take a hit to their reputation.
But fresh produce powered by electronic labels can show exactly which farm or distributor it has traveled from via it’s digital twin on the web. With a far more uncluttered food supply chain to sieve through, the investigative tasks for regulators becomes much more simpler. Product recalls become more straightforward by targeting only the suspected farms, instead of banning the supply of the entire range of the produce. Traceability is thus the key to tackling and understanding the causes for such frequent outbreaks.
But better management of foodborne illnesses is just one of the advantages of going digital.
Increased Visibility means fewer mishaps down the Supply Chain
Retailers, distributors, manufacturers and farmers can all benefit hugely from smart packaging and electronic labels. The digital transformation of very complex supply chains afford more transparency into all events that are a part of it and make available data of higher quality to work with. From producers to distributors, packaging companies and retailers, each participant can know the exact actions of a particular item within the supply chain. When you have a complete and accurate record of each product’s journey at both SKU and batch levels from all active participants, processes that focus on narrowing down sources for inadequacies or anomalies in events of a product recall situation become faster and simpler – more powerful.
Enterprises can keep track of harvest dates and accordingly plan logistics to ship items to locations depending on their freshness. A digital record via the digital twin of each item on the web enables far better stock keeping. These digital twins ensure that store employees are alerted to produce that are nearing their expiry dates or use-by dates . With a clearer view of items in their inventory that might soon be going bad, companies can plan for and take definite stems in offloading these items through multiple channels; for example sell them at cheaper rates or donate them to food banks.
Product Data is equally valuable to Consumers and Enterprises
It is not just enterprises who benefit from traceability and the expanded product information afforded by electronic labels. Consumers today are looking for more than an ingredient list on product labels. They want to know use-by and expiry dates, ingredients, allergen information, instructions for storage and preparation, advisory and warning statements, country of origin and much more. Savvy consumers are conscious of how their lifestyle choices and purchase decisions impact the world. Not only are they more aware of environmental and social issues, they want each aspect of their lives to contribute to the betterment of the world. This involves their purchase decisions being more responsible, sustainable and ethical. Brands would be unwise to ignore this shift in mindset and would do well to deliver more visibility into their products to build richer relations with their customers.
But there is only so much that the physical surface of a product can manage to cram into its limited confines! But the digital space is not bound by such confines. It can contain an endless amount of data, can capture and store changes in real time, distribute relevant data into multiple channels as deemed necessary and enable a user friendly interface to display the data, reducing unnecessary confusion caused by overcrowded text on product labels.
Electronic labels leverage the universal presence of smartphone technology in our daily lives to enable access to expanded product information at the point of consideration for a sale. Not only can brands utilize e-labels for the purposes of ensuring higher consumer transparency, it could be an opportunity for some innovation in packaging and branding. Smart packaging and interactive product labels can lead to a more personalized, interesting and fun shopping experience for richer, smarter and thoughtful customer engagement and experiences.
Electronic labels can reinvent smaller enterprises and farmers
There are plenty of smaller enterprises that pride over their organic produce. Fresh produce from such farms generally do not carry any outer packaging, save for a tiny sticker. These enterprises can capitalize on these tiny stickers to deliver rich content to their consumers. A single data matrix code on a sticker can elevate a orange into a connect smart product. Scanning its sticker will tell the potential buyer how and where the single orange was grown, the date it was harvested, temperature and storage conditions it was under as well as the locations it has passed through before reaching a local supermarket. It can carry information verifying its organic nature and lack of any bio-engineered content through certifications. Electronic labels can help smaller enterprises and farmers reimagine their business practices by appealing to a more technologically savvy market base.
And that is not all that a simple data matrix code can do. Its traceability feature will also help smaller enterprises come onto a shared system of collaborators in events of contaminated and poisoned food circulating the market.
It is the responsibility of every enterprise which works to grow and distribute food, to ensure a bountiful supply of safe and fresh produce to the mass. Meshing the digital and physical world is the key to securing the integrity of the fresh food supply chain.