In an increasingly complex global food supply chain, manufacturers, growers, and distributors alike are pushed to ramp up their traceability procedures and efforts to implement transparency1. Most food manufacturers already have food traceability systems in place to detect food safety non-conformances.
However, advancing digital lean manufacturing practices, and Industry 4.0 technologies such as IIoT (Industrial Internet of Things) sensors, offer players along the food supply chain unprecedented possibilities to improve traceability and transparency. More and more food manufacturers will embrace digital food traceability solutions to keep up with the competition and consumer demands for supply chain transparency.
What is food traceability?
Traceability in food manufacturing is the ability to track and trace each component of a final product, e.g. raw materials and ingredients, and the product itself during the whole manufacturing process – from incoming goods to dispatch.
Supply chain traceability – or farm to fork traceability – expands this internal traceability to the whole product life cycle, by linking data from the grower of raw materials through the manufacturer and retailer to the end consumer (see Figure 1).
How food traceability works
Food manufacturers or their suppliers commonly apply permanent marks to the components of products, e.g. in the form of GS1 barcodes. Barcodes usually consist of a scannable barcode symbol and numbers. They contain relevant product data such as the batch and serial number, its weight or expiry date or the name of the manufacturer. In addition, the code contains a unique item identifier that enables manufacturers to track their products throughout the entire production process.
Why is food traceability important?
Traceability enables food manufacturers to take corrective actions quickly and effectively, e.g. in the form of product recalls, when a manufacturing error occurs2. In the case of food safety non-conformances, for example, a traceability system identifies contaminated food products and hinders them from being sold to consumers, minimising potential health risks to the public. As a result, food manufacturers can protect their reputation and brand but also reduce potential disruptions to their business.
Traceability has been particularly important for food safety management, enabling manufacturers to efficiently recall specific batches of faulty or contaminated food products. However, traceability can go much further, allowing for meeting growing consumer demand for transparency or increasing operational efficiency and, therefore, reducing food waste.
The emergence of granular food traceability solutions
In food manufacturing, traceability has traditionally been associated with the traceability of the food product itself. Food manufacturers are now increasingly expanding their traceability management to tracking and tracing processes, equipment, or staff.
A defect detected in a final product could have occurred at several process steps during the production run. Granular food traceability solutions offer manufacturers full visibility along the whole production process. Organisations can, therefore, identify the root cause of the defect by detecting process steps that might have been left out, an operator that might have lacked specific training or a manufacturing machine that might need to get maintained.
Digital food traceability accelerated by Industry 4.0 technology
Food manufacturers still rely on pen and paper when it comes to recording food safety data, which can impede smooth and comprehensive traceability in case of non-conformances as the relevant data is trapped on paper.
Industry 4.0 technologies, such as IIoT sensors, smart labelling, blockchain and big data, are traceability accelerators that are going to transform traceability and food safety management significantly. They do not only eliminate paper-based food safety processes but also streamline traceability. Digital food traceability solutions also eliminate failure-prone manual processes by capturing and storing data aromatically, increasing efficiency and reducing costs and risks.
IIoT sensors increase accuracy and hinder food fraud
Food manufacturers already use IIoT-enabled sensors to ensure food safety and increase transparency. The most known are inline or environmental sensors that monitor the product temperature during the production run or room environmental parameters e.g. differential pressure, humidity, or temperature. IIoT sensors monitor in real-time and 24/7, sending off instant alerts when a pre-defined threshold is passed.
Automated monitoring accelerates reaction times significantly, reducing waste caused by spoiled food products. Moreover, the elimination of manual recording tasks increases transparency and accuracy and hinders fraud.
IIoT sensors offer far more capabilities than monitoring temperature. Colour sensors, for example, can monitor the quality of food products by measuring the RGB value of the product’s surface. Potential applications are the remote monitoring of ripening levels of fruit in ethylene enriched ripening rooms or the colour of meat carcasses in nitrogen-enriched storerooms.
Hyperspectral sensors measure the food product’s quality by examining it in wavelengths across the electromagnetic spectrum, measuring its chemical composition and visualising its different ingredients, such as protein, sugar or fat.
A new level of transparency with smart labels and blockchain
Food manufacturers today can implement smart food traceability solutions by using manufacturing software combined with barcode scanners and portable printers. This enables operators to read all relevant barcode data of incoming raw materials or components automatically into the software at each critical step of the production process. They can generate new barcodes, such as GS1 labels, and print them with portable printers in case new barcodes are needed for sub-batches, for example.
Smart labels allow consumers to quickly accessing all product data that has been gathered through the supply chain by simply scanning the QR code with their smartphone – ranging from ingredients through best before dates and place of origin to even personalised data.
Food manufacturers can quickly and reliably track product information to the exact time and process and ingredient used as well as the operator responsible and machine used at the time the defect occurred.
Blockchain technology facilitates transparency as it enables manufacturers to authenticate a product and track it through the supply chain. The concept of blockchain technology is the recording and storing of data in blocks in such a way that it is almost impossible to change.
The five essential benefits of digital food traceability solutions
- Consumers are increasingly demanding greater transparency of the food supply chain to be able to make informed purchase decisions3. By implementing stricter traceability measures in food production, food manufacturers can meet this customer demand.
- By implementing digital food traceability solutions, food manufacturers can immediately detect issues and their causes and, therefore, resolve them quickly to minimise the impact on their operations. As a result, manufacturers reduce the number of food safety issues, waste, and costly product recalls.
- Effective batch traceability enables food manufacturers to recall only those items with the specific batch number of the batch that is affected, reducing costs significantly and maintaining customer loyalty.
- Digital product and process traceability through the manufacturing facility allows manufacturers to improve processes by enhancing the mapping of the production value stream. For example, by mapping the value stream, food manufacturers can easily identify and eliminate bottlenecks that can cause delays.
- By storing all traceability data in the cloud, manufacturers achieve full visibility on all food safety and compliance data and processes in real-time. Moreover, collating all relevant data in one place improves interdepartmental data flows and, therefore, increases efficiency.
Digital food traceability solutions bring tracking and tracing efforts in food manufacturing to the next level as they enable transparent and seamless supply chain traceability from farm to fork. As a result, food manufacturers not only prevent potential harm to customers but also improve brand value and increase profit.
Do you want to learn more about how you can enhance traceability in your business? Then contact us today.
1 AgriNovus Indiana, Purdue University & EY Parthenon (2021). Resilience through disruption. The impact of the pandemic on Indiana and the future of food and agriculture.
2Food Standards Australia New Zealand (2017). Food traceability.
3 Word Economic Forum (2019). Innovation with a purpose: Improving traceability in food value chains through technology innovations.
4 Aung, M.M., & Chang, Y. (2014). Traceability in a food supply chain: Safety and quality perspectives. Food Control, 39, 172-184.