”Reach your hand down into the cooler,
Don’t drink it if the mountains aren’t blue …”
Whether you’re a food packaging enthusiast, a beer drinker, a country music lover, or you’ve simply seen the commercials or had a can yourself, you know exactly what these lyrics of Little Big Town’s “Pontoon” are about. But for those of you who aren’t any of the above, the song refers to the mountains on the cold-activated cans and bottles of Coors Light that turn blue when the beer is cold.
So, what does beer drinking on a pontoon have to with supply-chain management? A lot, if you think about the technological advances that are helping the food industry control and monitor the safety of its food throughout the supply chain.
It is a field that is “constantly evolving, constantly changing,” said Jonathon Watson, a Ph.D. candidate in agricultural operations management at the University of Florida. Watson was the lead author on the paper “The Role and Impact of Technology on Supply-Chain Management in the Food Industry” (https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/ae511). The purpose of the paper, Watson said, was to showcase notable technologies and how they can improve supply chain management for the food industry. Those technologies, other current innovations, and their benefits and limitations are explored in this article.
SMART PACKAGING. Coors uses a thermochromic ink to sense and relay the temperature of its beer. This technology is not really new, it has been used as a novelty item for decades, such as its use on coffee mugs to reveal a graphic when a hot beverage is poured in, that then fades as it cools. But Coors was the first to take the technology mainstream in smart packaging of a food. The downside of the ink technology, as it relates to traceability, is its temporary nature – it tells the current temperature of the item, but not its history.
But a new technology does: that is, RFID biosensors. Like the thermochromic ink, RFID is not new, as it has been used in everything from amusement-park tickets to library books. But today’s technology not only recognizes items, it can recognize a food’s characteristics, such as temperature, spoilage, and even presence of pathogens.
“This has really important implications for recalling food before it gets to the consumer,” Watson said, citing the Bluebell Creameries ice cream recall as an example. If there had been a way to monitor the containers, the product could have been held prior to distribution and the recall potentially prevented.
This is the type of issue that RFID biosensors may be able to address. Although it is still in a testing phase, the biosensors are showing promise in being able to be attached to individual containers and detect pathogens.
VIDEO INSPECTION. Another new technology intended to aid in detecting contaminants through the supply chain is that of portable video systems, which decrease the likelihood of a problem or contaminant slipping through a process because it remains unseen. Large vessels are used for the transport or storage of many products and their ingredients. But food safety issues involving the introduction of foreign objects, cross contamination, unhygienic conditions, etc., occur in these, and they can be hard to visually inspect, said Zistos President Bob Levine. “This is, in part, because they are considered confined spaces that can be difficult and dangerous to access.”
Visual inspection of such containers – even by simply putting one’s head into an opening to look with a flashlight – is defined as a confined-space entry operation and must be OSHA compliant. At minimum, this involves two people with special equipment and training, Levine said. “The complexity of this task is increased when you consider that the inspection process itself can cause a contamination event unless precautions are taken.”
That is where a portable video system can come in. While allowing for a thorough visual inspection of the tank interior, a pole-mounted, self-illuminating camera maintains hygienic conditions and does not require the inspector to enter the confined space. At the same time, Levine said, its use increases food safety because it enables an inspector to spot an otherwise hidden potential contamination issue in a vessel before the food product is loaded.
“FSMA clearly states that it is expected that sanitary and hygienic conditions must be maintained in the production or transportation of human and animal food products,” Levine said. While the specific requirements may vary, “the expectation of cleanliness and documentation is clearly indicated by both the letter and spirit of the regulations,” he added.
The ability to instantly communicate via digital networks can add a layer of accountability, with images and video inspections able to be recorded and transmitted from the field in near real time. “The same technology can be used to also record inspections for others in the supply chain to guarantee compliance with both inspection and documentation requirements,” he said.
“It is critical to inspect at each link of a supply chain because contamination can occur anywhere.” Levine said. Inspection of just the end product may keep a tainted food from public consumption, but it can still have significant ramifications from a cost and liability standpoint.
RECORDS AND DOCUMENTATION. Thus, recording and storing data throughout the supply chain is becoming increasingly important. As such, the use of electronic trackers, such as RFID and GPS with data loggers, is enabling not only tracking of supplies for time and place, but also for other programmed food safety and/or quality variables, such as temperature, relative humidity, elevation, etc. With this system, Watson said, “you can quickly identify issues that can cause product to deteriorate and spoil, and then rectify it quickly.”
This provides critical information for tracking and traceability, particularly in relation to perishable foods. It also is another technology that will assist the industry in meeting FSMA’s pending transportation rule.
RFID tags are also being used in reusable plastic containers (RPCs) to minimize loss. “As the RPC moves through the supply chain, you can track it so you don’t lose it in the chain – which actually happens quite frequently,” Watson said.
CLOUD COMPUTING. Another new technology is that which coordinates the supply chain through cloud computing. Cloud computing involves a network of Internet-hosted servers – which may be public, private, or a hybrid of the two – that stores, manages, and processes data. The advantages of this type of system are that it can provide a shared communication point and pool of information between suppliers and customers, with security passwords and checkpoints, and it can be configured to fit the needs of the particular chain with minimal management.
Most critical in cloud computing is that either a single system be used through the chain or systems be able to communicate. This can be difficult to coordinate in complex international supply chains, but, Watson said, “I think there is a real potential for cloud computing.”
GE Global Industry Manager – Manufacturing Katie Moore expressed similar sentiments, stating, “There is not one package that does everything, so you need to look for programs that are open and can speak to other programs.” How do you know if they will? Ask the vendor, she said. “You should work with vendors who openly discuss who they can connect to and how.”
While many food companies do currently use digital traceability systems, there are still those who rely on paper-based methods. Although those are “okay,” Moore said, such methods are time consuming and hard to manage; they are less thorough and more prone to errors. If there were to be a contaminated or otherwise compromised food, it could be very difficult to pinpoint where it is in the chain when using paper, she said. FSMA does not require electronic tracking systems, but, Moore said, “Technology helps it to be faster and more nimble.”
HOW TO SELECT TECHNOLOGIES. These new and evolving technologies do have their challenges and limitations as well. “Cost could be a real concern for some smaller businesses,” Watson said.
Another issue can be a company failing to properly implement technology due to its lack of knowledge, he said. For example, a customer relationship management system can actually be a detriment to customer relationships and cause a higher loss of orders if there are difficulties with its implementation. For this reason, it is critical that you take your entire operation into consideration to select technologies that truly fit your organization.
The most important thing in selecting the technologies that will most benefit your supply chain management efforts is being proactive, Moore added. “Understand what technologies are out there and become educated so you know what best fits your company.”
“It’s important that food processors evaluate every part of their operations,” Watson agreed, adding, “You need to understand the impact of the technology and the significance it will have on various areas of your business, including productivity and profitability.”
To do this, Moore said, “Get all the right stakeholders involved.” This includes the IT group as well as quality assurance and food safety management. “The key is to determine one or two business outcomes you are trying to achieve and align around that.”
Then, because there are so many different technologies available, seek opinions from peers, Watson said. “Read customer reviews; talk to people who use it; get unbiased third-party opinions.” Don’t just rely on the word of salespeople about a technology, he said, “It’s their job to sell it.”
From “blue mountains” to the cloud – and everything in between, technology is changing so rapidly that things that were written a year or two ago have already changed. And that, Watson said, “is what is so exciting about this.”
With cloud computing as an area he expects to grow significantly, and smart packaging’s ability “to think for itself” to detect temperature and spoilage being a key advancement for food safety, he said, “It’s really a great time to be in the industry. The challenges are difficult, but the opportunities are vast.”The author is editor of QA magazine. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.