The Germans call it Industrie 4.0, others talk about smart industries, but essentially everyone is pointing in the same direction: a future in which every piece of industrial processing equipment is connected, via the Internet of Things (IoT), with each other and with management systems in a massive cloud of data. But as exciting as the digital future may seem, the question is: can all of this contribute to our food safety?
So how to improve food safety by digital means? We can of course start off by putting sensors in every single piece of our food processing equipment and adjust our process parameters to the incoming real time data streams, but the real opportunities for improvements lay in the possibilities to connect all data streams across the supply chain.
In a world where food industries are faced with new food safety challenges every day (some of them related to globalisation of supply chains and markets, others to declining consumer trust), digitalisation may offer much-needed possibilities for improvements. Food suppliers, especially farm to fork companies, are expected to drive innovations to control food safety aspects across the food supply chain. After all, these are the companies that need to stay on top of global food safety risks. It seems however that some of the most promising innovations are driven by technology companies. By looking into new possibilities to harness the power of digital technologies, they aim to find new competitive advantages in a highly competitive food equipment market. One of these companies is the Bühler Group. This Swiss Food Technology Company recently launched an online information platform that intends to help food processing companies to optimise the traceability of their raw material and product streams.
Giovanna Pozzan, Digital Product Owner Data Analytics and Services at Bühler Group: “The globalisation of the food supply chains makes food safety management more dynamic and challenging, and a growing number of our customers that use Bühler food processing equipment approach us with questions on how to deal with food safety issues that arise due to the increasing complexity of their supply chains. They face new and sometimes unexpected challenges, for example because they find bacteria on food ingredients that they never encountered before. New global product routings and a growing number of transitional stages and intermediate food ingredient locations create a demand for real time contamination data."
Pozzan: "It is why Bühler Group launched the online information platform safefood.ai, that scans thousands of online data sources for local and regional contamination news and that enables food producers to better predict food safety issues in their supply chains. By scanning the latest product recall news, alerts and warnings from international and national food authorities, web pages and social media news, safefood.ai helps food producers to stay aware of trends and risks before they can affect their business.”
Besides investigating new digital possibilities to optimise food safety individually, food industry related companies also start to share their resources to ramp up the innovation power needed to meet future challenges. Coincidentally, this momentarily also occurs in Switzerland, where The Swiss federal institutes of technology ETH Zürich and EPFL (Ecole Polytechnique Féderale de Lausanne) launched a joined research initiative with Givaudan, Nestlé and Bühler [link].
While this initiative focuses primarily on research related to consumer trends and sustainability, other initiatives bet on the promises of blockchain technology to optimize the digital traceability and consequently the food safety of food ingredients. Food retailer Walmart for example is working with IBM on a food safety blockchain solution and announced that Walmart is requiring all suppliers of leafy green vegetable for Sam’s and Walmart to upload their data to the blockchain by September 2019 [link]. Meanwhile, Dutch retailer Albert Heijn makes an effort to enhance traceability and transparency across its orange juice supply chain by implementing blockchain technology as well [link].
Blockchaining the food supply chains
What can blockchain technology already do for food safety? That depends on who you ask. In this Forbes article [link], food, science and health writer Jenny Splitter states that ‘despite the promises that blockchain technology will transform the entire food industry by increasing efficiency, transparency and collaboration throughout the food system, essentially it’s just a digital ledger, a digitised record of whatever data is added by its members, with no ability to verify the accuracy of the underlying data itself.’
When asked to comment, Fraunhofer Institute Deputy Director and Head of the Department for Process Engineering and Packaging IVV Dresden Marc Mauermann begs to differ: “After one of the stakeholders in a specific food supply chain has added information to his blockchain, it is impossible (or at least extremely difficult) to erase or alter that data entry without detection. This makes blockchain technology suitable to become an important part of the big technology puzzle needed to manage food safety risks across food supply chains. The benefit for food safety is perhaps the biggest benefit of digitalisation for the food industry, even bigger than the efficiency benefits."
Mauermann: "Imagine a digitally connected food supply chain, gathering and sharing information amongst all stakeholders. With this information, smart data processing and modelling, based on effective structures, we might get a better picture of the performance of the full range of the food supply chain that is connected to one specific food product - from the farm, via processing and packaging to logistics and retail. It can really change the rules of the game, since bad food supply batches can be easily traced back to their sources. Consequently, the pressure on every stakeholder in a food supply chain to comply with good manufacturing practices will be much higher than it is now.”
As promising as the perspectives for digitally powered food safety may be, the development of digital process, information and traceability management will only take off after the underlying digital infrastructures are put into place. Another challenge is that at this point in time, food processing companies are not yet used to handle big data streams. A survey, conducted in 2018 by GFSI and DNV, amongst six hundred food industry professionals concludes that most of them just don’t know yet how to utilise blockchain technology to improve food safety. However, swift changes are to be expected here, since 44 percent of the respondents stated to already use sensor technology and the other 56 percent expects to start implementing sensors within the next three years. Also, 40 percent expects to start using blockchain technology with the next three years.
What remains to be seen is if all those survey respondents will have put the necessary IT-infrastructure in place before then. Mauermann: “At the Fraunhofer Institute, we are momentarily working on different parts of the backbone of digitalisation, for example directly on machinery processes, where we develop monitoring systems and adaptive cleaning procedures based on real time process data coming from sensory systems. To do this on a large scale, digital twin representations of the process lines have to be designed. In other words: everything starts with engineering. Many food industries still work with legacy design processes and machines that are not ready for digitalisation. That’s why we are investigating new ramp up scenarios and methods for effective transitions from legacy to digital twin machines. The time has come for food producers to really look into the digitalisation options for their current process data. We need to find out if existing inline monitoring systems can be mathematically linked to quality criteria and if not, how we can renew our systems to make them future-proof and suitable for upcoming digital developments. There’s still a lot of work to be done, but it’s definitely worth the efforts, since the potential benefits are great, especially for food safety.” <