This article series is sponsored by General Mills and produced by the TriplePundit editorial team.
In cases of widespread foodborne illness, like last year’s E. coli outbreak linked to romaine lettuce, the next step is to determine where along the food supply chain the contamination occurred. That’s where food traceability—the ability to trace a product through every step in the supply chain, from point of origin to final retail location—comes into play.
Beyond its critical role in food safety, traceability is also becoming increasingly important to meet consumer demand for more healthy food choices produced in ways less harmful to people and the environment. For consumers, traceability adds a layer of credibility to claims like non-GMO, organic, free range or “sustainably sourced.”
But end-to-end traceability—from farm, to factory, to fork—is a big challenge. Agricultural supply chains are complex, involving layers of wholesalers and distributors. Many ingredient supplies rely on smallholder farmers, the majority of whom still use paper-based record keeping. That’s why new, tech-driven approaches are emerging to improve traceability and promote better transparency along these complex supply chains.
Blockchain technology seems to be everywhere these days—and the food industry is no exception. Blockchain, the technology that enables cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, is particularly well suited to supply chains because it creates secure, transparent and virtually incorruptible ledgers of transactions.
Several companies are exploring what blockchain can do when it comes to food traceability. Walmart, for example, recently ran a proof of concept using IBM’s Hyperledger Fabric blockchain solution. It all started with a challenge from Walmart’s vice president of food safety to his team: trace a package of sliced mangoes back to its source. It took almost a week (six days, 18 hours and 26 minutes) to get an answer. After implementing a blockchain system to track the mangoes, it took just a few seconds.
Starting at the farm where the mangoes are grown, each pallet is tagged with a unique numeric identifier. As a pallet moves from farm to broker to distributor to store, its status is logged as a transaction in the blockchain. At any point in its journey, a Walmart employee can track the pallet using a Web-based program.
Carrefour, Europe’s largest retailer, is using blockchain to trace the production of free-range chicken in the Auvergne region in central France. To provide full farm-to-fork traceability, Carrefour developed a nifty smartphone app that consumers can use to scan a code on the package. This allows them to see information for each stage of production, including where and how the chickens were raised and what they were fed. The company plans to expand blockchain use to other products like honey, eggs, milk, tomatoes, hamburgers and salmon.
Other big companies are also jumping on the blockchain train. Last year, Nestle, Unilever and Tyson Foods announced plans to explore how blockchain technology can help track food supply chains to ensure that products meet ethical and safety standards.
Cloud-based systems also improve food traceability by allowing suppliers to move away from paper-based record keeping to online tools like Ingredion’s Truetrace system. Ingredion makes sweeteners, starches, and other food and beverage ingredients from plant sources such as maize, wheat, corn, rice and potato. A major portion of its portfolio is based on non-bioengineered/non-GMO ingredients. The company uses Truetrace, an in-house system, to trace ingredients throughout the manufacturing process—from when the seed is planted to the delivery of the finished product.
“Instead of handwriting or filling out Web forms to provide planting and harvest data, growers can now upload info via thumb drives to streamline the documentation process,” Andrew Utterback, manager of commodities purchasing for Ingredion, told Food Business News. This gives the company the ability to “trace any batch of starch back to the farmers who grew the corn, the fields on which the corn was grown, and the seed varieties and lots used,” he added.
The multi-stakeholder initiative Field to Market: The Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture brings partners together to boost transparency across the food and agriculture sector. The nonprofit collaborative comprises more than 140 companies representing all facets of the U.S. agricultural supply chain.
Field to Market provides several resources to help its members improve traceability and operate more sustainably, including the online Fieldprint Platform. Growers can use this free online calculator to measure their practices against environmental outcomes like land use, irrigation water use, energy use, greenhouse gas emissions and soil loss. Their results are kept confidential, while the tool allows them to benchmark themselves against state and national averages.
Additionally, to ensure their products can be traced back to sustainable agricultural practices, many food manufacturers are working directly with farmers to create segregated supply chains for their ingredients. This allows manufacturers to take direct control of their supply chains, rather than working through a string of distributors and wholesalers.
For example, Annie’s—one of General Mills’ organic brands—set up a segregated supply chain to source organic grain from two farms in Montana. The grain is grown using regenerative agriculture techniques and is ultimately used to create limited-edition Honey Bunny Grahams crackers and Elbow Pasta and Cheddar meals for Annie’s.
For those who aren’t familiar, regenerative agriculture is a system of farming practices that “leads to healthy soil, capable of producing high-quality, nutrient-dense food while simultaneously improving rather than degrading land,” according to
Regeneration International, a nonprofit advocacy group. Soil maintained according to these practices is also better at sequestering carbon compared to conventional farming methods.
Ordinarily, big food companies like General Mills mix grains from several sources when making products. While segregating the supply from one or two farms guarantees traceability, the process is complicated and costly for now. Still, many companies are moving in this direction based on consumer demand and their own recognition that protecting the farmland where their products originate will be good for their bottom line over time.
Unless you grow all of your food in your backyard, you should be concerned about food traceability. The good news is: As methods of traceability advance, our food supply will become safer and our environment better protected. Keep your eye on this space as technology applications in food traceability continue to grow.
Image: Scott Warman/Unsplash
Jim Witkin is a writer based in Silicon Valley and London focused on business, technology and the environment. His work has been featured in the New York Times and Guardian newspapers. He holds an MBA in Sustainable Management from the Presidio Graduate School.