From Field to Factory to Fork

February 27, 2019

From Field to Factory to Fork

Tracking Food Products throughout the Supply Chain

By Kelly Smith

Do you know where your last meal came from? More importantly, do you know where it’s been? In the not too distant past, the answer was clear. Historically, food was produced at local farms and distributed to a relatively local network—with the end purchaser often knowing exactly who grew their food, where it came from, and every stop it made from farm to table. In today’s global food supply chain, this is no longer the case.

Despite a more distributed supply chain than ever, insight into food and beverage products often begins and ends with “Where did you buy it?” and “What is the expiration date?”. Still, research tells us that nearly all consumers desire transparency into the food and beverage products they purchase, with 99% of survey respondents valuing transparency for their fresh food products and 98% valuing transparency for packaged food goods.

Fortunately, the advent of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) continues to permeate the food and beverage supply chain, bringing with it advanced track and trace capabilities for food items throughout every stage of their lifecycle—from the field, to the factory, to the fork.

The Field

The first stop in the food lifecycle is the field. Here, farmers plant, tend, and harvest a myriad of crops—some of which will be directly prepared for market and others of which will be paired with other ingredients to create new food items in the factory. In a remote field operation, often far removed from the connected context of the factory, traceability may seem a near impossibility. And yet, the effective use of batching can make traceability a seamless aspect of the field operation.

During harvesting, items are removed by field workers and pooled into batches that will later be brought to a centralized location for packaging or further processing. These batches present the first opportunity to record insights—ranging from which field an item came from, to what day was it picked, to who picked it. This process begins in the field through the use of serialized labels, affixed to pans of crops. These labels are again scanned into the system when each crop reaches its next destination within the processing lifecycle.

Targeted field insights not only empower consumers to know the who, what, and where behind the food they are eating, but they also provide farmers and manufacturers a dramatically enhanced ability to uphold the integrity of goods and enhance the efficiency of their operations. For instance, field data provides batch-level insight into yield levels per field, helping farmers determine when to rotate crops or rest fields. In addition, yield tracking informs farmers of personnel performance so they are better able to make decisions about worker placement and promotion.

The Factory

Next up is the factory. Here, various ingredients have been transported from the field to a single facility, where food products will be prepared, processed, and packaged for distribution. Though inherently more connected than the farm, the factory presents its own array of food tracking challenges—particularly due to the sheer number of items that pass through a facility in a given day.

By tracing items on the factory floor,

manufacturers and distributors are able to assure that critical steps in the production process are universally performed,

and safe handling practices are consistently upheld.

It is in the factory that traceability shifts from the batch level to the product level, and serialized identities are again adhered to individual products on the production line. By tracing items on the factory floor, manufacturers and distributors are able to assure that critical steps in the production process are universally performed, and safe handling practices are consistently upheld. On the factory floor (as in the field), traceability can similarly shed light on production line and personnel performance, empowering operational leaders to optimize and increase efficiency over time.

It is important to note that the food and beverage factory is home to a myriad of stringent rules and standards set forth by regulatory agencies, such as the FDA, which food and beverage manufacturers must uphold at every stage of production. Traceability is foundational to meeting these regulations and reducing the cost of compliance. But even when the impetus is not regulatory, cross-factory traceability is vital to achieving consumer transparency. Take, for instance, declaring allergens. While food labeling laws only require manufacturers to warn about allergens that are ingredients, many facilities elect to include warnings of potential cross contamination with other ingredients in the factory.

The Fork

Picture this. A finished food or beverage item has made it to grocery store shelves, or is sitting in a customer’s pantry waiting to be eaten. It is in the last mile of the supply chain, when a food or beverage item is out of the hands of the producer, that it is the most challenging to track—but it is often the most critical.

With complete, field-to-factory data, however, stakeholders throughout the supply chain can

identify and recall only the affected batches.

Often, consumer access to a food product’s genealogy is merely a means of preference. In other cases, however, it is integral to ensuring product safety. Let’s say a food recall occurs. Time is of the essence as sellers attempt to target and isolate all contaminated units, many of which have already left store shelves. Without product-level data available, a seller is forced to remove all product from its store and consumers are encouraged to throw product away rather than take a chance. With complete, field-to-factory data, however, stakeholders throughout the supply chain can identify and recall only the affected batches. Meanwhile, customers can validate from their very homes if the food they have is safe to consume—minimizing the time to resolution and the negative safety effects of an oversight.

In a far more common situation, a customer wants to verify a particular health claim made by a manufacturer. Research indicates that the desire for label claims like non-GMO and organic are on the rise, with 46% of Americans wanting non-GMO food products and 30% eating organic food. Empowered to take a virtual journey through the supply chain—beginning in the field—consumers can verify key claims for themselves, ultimately elevating satisfaction, brand trust, and perceived value.

Sowing the Seeds of Traceability from Day 1

The journey from seed to store shelves is a long one, that is marked by monumental scale, rising complexity, and broadening reach. The nature of today’s food and beverage landscape has transformed traceability from a luxury of the large operation to a necessity for every producer or manufacturer—no matter their size.

ProLinc, by Ashton Potter, provides universal traceability over the entire food and beverage supply chain to empower growers and manufacturers with actionable access to the billions of product-related data points that today’s global food supply chain demands. Paired with our secure serialized labels and expert integration services, ProLinc empowers manufacturers to track items from the field, to the manufacturing facility, to store shelves, and beyond—giving manufacturers the real time, scalable global insight they need in a single solution.

Want to eliminate the blind spots in your food and beverage supply chain? Let’s get started today.

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