The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

IBM’s Smarter Food Value Chain

IBM’s Smarter Food Value Chain

Food Safety Update

January 24, 2010

From pet food to baby food, lettuce to milk, 2009 had its share of high profile recalls. It’s no wonder that the majority consumers say they are concerned about the safety of the food they purchase, according to a recent IBM study. The study, conducted in 10 of the largest metropolitan areas in the U.S., also found that fewer than 20% of consumers trust food companies to develop food products that are safe and healthy.

Now, IBM is betting that their innovative food technology solutions could be just what the doctor ordered. IBM’s track and trace technology follows food from farm to fork, providing companies with a comprehensive and reliable account of the product’s journey to the consumer. This increased visibility helps improve food safety, as well as contributing to lower spoilage rates. A whopping 3.5% of retail sales, in fact, are lost due to supply chain inefficiencies each year.

Ralph Jacobson, IBM’s Global Consumer Products Marketing Manager, says that 
track and trace technology is important for food security too. Only 1% of imported foods are inspected before entering the U.S., leaving a lot of room for error. The good news is that we now have the ability to tag every lemon available for purchase with its own, non-repeatable ID that can be traced back to that specific, individual lemon. However, this incredible technology is being underutilized, says Jacobson. And with 76 million cases of foodborne illness each year in the U.S. alone, we can’t afford further complacency. 

IBM recently developed a full traceability solution in the Canadian Province of Manitoba to connect more than 16 supply chain partners. Designed to securely and accurately gather data about a single piece of meat at any step in the process from producer to grocer, the solution uses RFID (radio frequency identification) technology to help keep food fresh and safe. Indeed, this is the kind of technology, says Jacobson, that more companies need to embrace.

While RFID technology has been around for some time, the challenge has always been how to best operationalize it, especially when dealing with issues of cost (a $.99 can of beans cannot afford a $.99 tag) and varying tag formats (passive or active). Additionally, there has been no RFID industry standard. Wal-Mart, for example, has a completely different system than that of the one created in Norway or Manitoba.

With over 100,000 manufacturers in North America alone, and anywhere from 40,000 to 70,000 supermarket items in any given store, creating a streamlined system for tracking all food all the way through the supply chain is a tall order – though not impossible, says Jacobson. As we move forward toward the establishment of a worldwide tracing network, he says, collaboration will be key.

“Making our food visible from farm to fork is a monumental but not insurmountable task,” he says. “We have the technology, and it’s accurate and dependable, but it can be better used. If we can get a smarter supply chain in place, it can only get safer. Retailers need to work with manufacturers to really connect the dots.”

Jacobson says that if more manufacturers would invest in track and trace technology, the U.S. could become a model for the rest of the world to follow. In the meantime, trade organizations should help create the needed awareness to get a global system off the ground. IBM is working in partnership with industry standards organizations including GS1, retailers and CPG companies to collaboratively help “write the book” on RFID and traceability.

“I think we can do better as an industry and take the lead in driving the type of collaboration we need,” Jacobson adds. “It would be an amazing thing if every frozen pizza in America – and the world – were followed from start to finish.”