Until the pandemic hit, fully half the money Americans spent on food was spent at restaurants rather than for home meals. Luxury homes are often equipped with two kitchens – one for show, and one for the household staff to use in actual food preparation. Previously unheard-of food-borne illnesses, such as allergies to peanuts, gluten or lactose, are now routine. And everywhere, the expectations of food quality are consistently higher than those of an earlier generation where food-related poisoning and illness were common.
That doesn’t mean mishaps don’t occur today. They do. Salmonella, norovirus, E.coli and listeria haven’t gone away. Just between January and March 2020, for example, the FDA issued 141 food recalls affecting 8.8 million units of food. During the second quarter of 2020, there were 79 recalls, affecting more than 7.8 million product units. Undeclared allergens, including mold and bacteria, were the top reasons for FDA food recalls. Although produce was the product category most affected in terms of the number of recalls during the second quarter, recalls of prepared foods affected more units. And in just the first half of 2020, USDA-required recalls affected about 700,000 pounds of meat, the equivalent of approximately 500 fully-grown cattle1.
But the growing use of digital technology at every stage of the food supply chain is making it much quicker and easier to identify problems, trace them back to their sources, and eliminate them from store shelves and commercial kitchens before customers can be sickened. That rapid response is something made possible by the use of a digital traceability process that starts at the source and uses unique identifiers called global trade item numbers to provide visibility to each step in the product’s supply chain, particularly in the event of a recall. A companion system of global location numbers is used to pinpoint each geographic stage in the process from farm or field to the grocery store or restaurant2. And both systems are widely used today.
Digital technology, in other words, can be a huge help in limiting damage to food companies and their customers. But minimizing losses are only the start. Those same technologies are being used to improve processing, packaging and shelf life of food, as well as its safety. Digital robots and machines are driving down costs, increasing productivity and helping to eliminate safety risks for more dangerous jobs in the food industry, such as cutting meats3.
Outside the shop floor, digital technologies are also playing an important role in strategic business decisions. Smart investments in digital transformation, according to one Forbes Council contributor, are giving companies in the food industry the ability to quickly pivot their businesses – an agility which became key to survival during the pandemic. Panera, for example, sold groceries and made them available for curbside pickup. Red Roof Inns, although not in the food industry, began offering day rates to people who needed a Wi-Fi-equipped workspace away from home4. And changes in product use patterns, such as eating more meals at home, required changes in packaging and distribution that affected a number of food and beverage businesses – changes which could be made more rapidly using a company’s digital technology.
Perhaps the most dramatic application of digitization, however, goes back to the source – to the first link in the world’s food supply chain – agriculture. A British publication, for example, notes that companies are using satellites to track asparagus crops and using high-tech cameras to measure the lean meat percentage of pork5.
Work is underway on driverless tractors featuring GPS navigation. Automated seeding of plants to precise soil depths and spacing is another promising application. Irrigation systems, informed by IoT sensors installed at different field locations to measure moisture levels, are being coupled with popular drip irrigation systems to maximize plant health. Weeding and pest control using cameras and sensors combined with machine learning is being integrated into self-propelled farm machinery. Specialty harvesters are being developed. Drone aircraft are being put to use assessing crop health, soil quality and planting locations. And storage sensor systems in silos and grain elevators alert farmers to issues involving moisture and heat.
Of course, the use of digital technologies at each stage of the food supply chain is still evolving; very few participants that chain are fully digital and automated, although the movement in that direction seems inexorable. But technology alone won’t bring about all the benefits attributed to digitization. For that to occur, there have to be opportunities for workforce training and education to make effective use of those technologies. There needs to be partnerships that span different sectors of the food industry to identify best practices and benchmark effective processes.
Reducing waste, meeting the world’s growing need for food security and addressing the ever-changing needs of consumers, remain key challenges facing the food industry and its allies. But with ongoing innovation and investment in technology, food manufacturers will be able to meet these challenges and make safer products more efficiently.
Doug Lawson is CEO of ThinkIQ, a pioneer of digital manufacturing transformation software-as-a-service (SaaS). ThinkIQ delivers unprecedented material traceability and insight into ways to improve yield, quality, safety, compliance and brand confidence while reducing waste and environmental impact.