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Agribusiness at the forefront of food safety: technology to secure the supply chain

Headlines on untreatable infections spreading internationally are scaring people across industries, damaging trust and brand credibility. The industrial concentration in the agri-food industry has also raised the potential consequences of any misfit. Standards for safety and hygiene are therefore becoming ever more stringent and manufacturers must make sure that they have taken care of food safety, first and foremost. Fortunately, today there is no shortage of reliable technological tools to secure the entire supply chain.

Cases affecting all sectors

In food industries generally, there have been mounting cases over the years of distributors discovering significant problems with their sources. In the UK this was famously an issue for the supermarket chain, Tesco, when traces of horse DNA were found in some of its beef products. An international investigation was carried out to finally trace the origin of the meat back to a eastern-Europe supplier. Meanwhile, tons of products were pulled out of the sale and the scandal left an indelible mark on the distributors’ brand image.

Over the years there have been several significant health outbreaks and scandals as well. Foot and mouth, mad cow disease, and most shockingly, the continuing African swine fever pandemic which has demolished China’s pork sector, now moving its way across Europe. Wilmar International, the Chinese agribusiness group headed by Kuok Khoon Hong, which processed 15.9 million tons of soybeans in 2018 had to react quickly to this event. Indeed, a large part of this soya is intended for animal feed and demand has dropped significantly as a result of the animal epidemic which has seen outbreaks in every region of the country devastating the livestock. The Singapore-based multinational decided, in the middle of this difficult period, to expand its other activities, in particular poultry feed, which should see a 20% increase this year.

The importance for manufacturers to control their entire supply chain was also highlighted with the case of the insecticide Fipronid found in eggs distributed in fifteen European countries. The insecticide, which is prohibited for use in the production of food for human consumption, was later found in processed products, including bakery products.

Increasingly vigilant consumers

Incidents like these are compounded by the greater exposure presented by the internet; consumers therefore see greater capacity to affect change, inclining them to be more demanding. But also, there has been in the past legitimate concern among allergy sufferers that companies were not well-enough able to prevent contamination and mislabeling.

Additional pressure is placed on some manufacturers and distributors when they provide highly supervised entities such as hospitals, schools or political institutions. This is the case of Sysco, in the United States, the world’s leading distributor of meals and food products. In 2013, the American multinational was thoroughly investigated when an employee alerted the authorities about food stored in sheds at abnormally high temperatures. Tim York, president of a Californian foodservice company and food safety specialist, reacted to the event by stating: “It underscores that cold chain management and food safety practices are a total supply chain responsibility.”

Smaller companies than Sysco sometimes also have the important responsibility of being the main distributor of meals and food for regulatory institutions or even ministries. For example, in Saudi Arabia Gulf Catering Food Factory (GCFF), led by Ahmed Bawazir, is the official supplier to the Ministries of Defense, Interior and Health. The subsidiary of the Al Munajem group assumes this responsibility and has even collaborated for years with the Ministry of Education as part of the School Feeding Program to produce and distribute meals in nearly 3 000 schools. Counting institutions with such high standards among its main customers is a major challenge for a food manufacturer. Such a company will therefore need to ensure the conformity of its entire supply chain, starting with the design of its production lines and up to and including final delivery.

When it comes to hospitals, the standard is at its highest. For example, Compass Group UK & Ireland Healthcare Services, the leading food supplier to hospitals in the UK market had to submit to a major internal survey of its entire supply chain since Health Minister Matt Hancock ordered a “root and branch review” of hospital food. Serving more than 6 million meals per year, this scrutiny is an ongoing challenge for the subsidiary of the multinational Compass Group plc.

How not to take any risks

First, traceability or the possibility of tracing food throughout the supply chain is essential to ensure food safety. This requirement has become as much a safety issue as a commercial one, as consumers themselves, for health or ecological reasons, want to know where the products, including the ingredients they contain, come from. In addition to labelling requirements, some specialists suggest that blockchain technology could revolutionize food safety. First used for crypto currency, its principle of fast and ultra-secure access to data can also be applied to the food industry, making it impossible to lose or alter data, tracking not only food ingredients but also any single transaction during the process with all relevant parameters. For Tomaž Levak, Giza Dreg, and Brainier Rakić, founders of OriginTrail, a start-up that is building the first purpose-built protocol for supply chains based on blockchain: “Blockchain has the potential to streamline business processes by designing powerful systems that will be trustworthy by their inherent design, so the trust will not be dependent just on the central authority.”

Then there is the need for the assurance that the products are manufactured on quality installations and in perfect compliance with the strictest hygiene and food safety rules. Some companies specializing in the design and installation of production lines for the food industry know that these requirements must be considered from the very beginning of the material’s fabrication. This is the case of Mecatherm, a French company operating in the bakery sector, whose president Olivier Sergent summarizes in the Daily Management Review : “The challenges facing food manufacturers are many, and to remain competitive it has become essential to ensure quality and variety while doing mass production, he says. In any case, food safety and hygiene issues must always remain an absolute priority to the point that they are even at the very heart of our R&D and they govern the design of our materials and installations.” Another essential element in securing the supply chain is communication between the different parties involved. The lack of communication can lead to real blind spots in the supply chain and can have major consequences as far as food safety is concerned. Here too, technology allows for progress and provides considerable assurance. The adoption of cloud technologies for instance increases collaboration, data and task sharing.

Of course, transport and storage must also be subject to the same vigilance, but these three principles of traceability, material security and communication also apply to the last stages of food production and distribution.

Now more than ever, consumers are willing to abandon brands for ecological and health reasons, and they are willing to change and try new brands on a whim. Maintaining their loyalty has become the ultimate challenge, as such, manufacturers need to get creative and ambitious in order to minimize risks of all kind. Supply chain security has become an area of expertise. Applied to the food industry, new technologies and well-designed facilities allow companies of all sizes to ensure that events as described above never occur.

This was posted in Bdaily's Members' News section by Christian Newman .

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