The lack of supply chain visibility and traceability in the food industry can lead to unnecessary product recalls, often jeopardising a brand’s reputation. This article analyses how end-to-end solutions can avoid such situations.

Food retailers and producers are often in the news because of massive product recalls and food scandals. But how can they avoid this in order to protect their own brand’s reputation and more importantly, to ensure food safety for their customers?

Sébastien Sliski, General Manager of Supply Chains Solutions at Zetes, explains the importance of retailers being aware of everything that is going on within their supply chain, and in near real time thanks to end-to-end solutions. And how, by reviewing their processes and creating a digitally connected supply chain, they can have increased transparency and control and be able to better monitor the flow of goods. Crucially, if situations unfold that lead to a product recall, having greater transparency will result in a retailer, and its suppliers, being able to react much quicker and any delays to discovering the cause of the contamination or issue, the number of products affected and the potential risk to public consumption or confusion is dramatically reduced.

Farm to fork – it’s all about traceability

The digital integration of suppliers and even their sub-contractors with retailers is vital if a retailer wants to have more control over its supply chain. Consumers demand for social responsibility and ethical business operations means that businesses need to provide greater visibility and transparency into the origins of their products. Whilst the current guidelines from the various EU safety regulators generally cover retailers as long as they can track one up and one down in terms of suppliers, this remains a very silo-ed approach to traceability and is open to risks. Risks that retailers can ill afford to take.  For the majority of retailers, it is regular practice for them to provide existing and potential suppliers with their own food safety guidelines; enforcing them to prove the source of their produce, its lifespan, how animals have been kept, what food they eat, injections they have and how they are cared for, along with how they are stored and transported from A to B, but surely there is more that needs to be done? Allowing suppliers to effectively self-manage without the retailer being able to fully trace the history of the products it sells and being accountable for its own supply chain will do nothing to limit the chances of both them and their supplier hitting the headlines.

There are many reasons why a product may be deemed unsuitable for human consumption and the risks remain high and can never be truly eradicated. Research shows that potentially harmful bacteria can often be present in meat and poultry, especially chicken - in roughly 65-70% of them. High levels of the toxin histamine can also be found in some fish. Problems tend to arise however, when food is undercooked, as the bacteria campylobacter, for example, can be killed when meat is thoroughly cooked at temperatures over 70 degrees for the correct amount of time for its weight.

The digitally connected supply chain

More and more manufacturers are starting to look at using IoT sensors and devices that talk to the internet so that they can then have real time dashboards of activities happening in their production line.

Through the use of cloud technology, retailers can also connect their supply chain, analyse data and make the supply chain better at condition monitoring products, such as for perishables goods, and can be alerted if there is a chance that food could have been subject to contamination, whether it is because of problems with livestock, fluctuations in temperatures within transportation, incorrect cooking methods or refrigeration issues. By adding sensors onto machinery, for example ovens, temperatures can be checked or placing them inside lorries or on assets can help to monitor transit conditions; making it possible to see exactly where a product has been and when, where it is at any particular time and importantly what temperature it has been kept at throughout its journey. Recording produce in this way is particularly crucial for adhering to industry food safety guidelines that show that certain toxins like histamine can be controlled during production when fish are quickly chilled at cold temperatures, which vary depending on the temperature of the waters the fish have been sourced at.

This data cannot only be reported back to the retailer to give them every opportunity to prevent any contaminated products hitting their shelves but also provides them with a full audit trail.

End-to-end solutions & product traceability for total recall

With more recalls being announced, the industry must take action now. If they wait, they will continue to open themselves up for further scrutiny and will force another slump in consumer confidence, which has already fallen since 2016.

One of the key benefits of having complete traceability and full supply chain visibility is a retailer, and its stakeholders, having access to vast amounts of data and being able to instantly isolate, identify and predict sources of contamination, and in turn, having the ability to conduct a targeted and proactive recall. Should contaminated products make it into stores, for retailers, it’s really about the speed in which they can respond. At present, there is no legislation at European level requiring food companies to introduce global traceability. However, regulators do agree that such systems would save costs in terms of the time needed to complete a recall and prevent greater problems.

When a retailer has the capability to immediately spot the source of a contaminated product and identify if there are others still left in the supply chain and where are they heading to, they can quickly and confidently complete a full recall to mitigate any consumer safety issues and protect their brand’s reputation.

It appears that the food industry often takes one step forward and one step back but through the use of cloud technology and collaboration between stakeholders, it could prevent this cycle. Furthermore, only by implementing additional processes and working in close collaboration with suppliers can retailers minimise the impact of food scandals and protect their relationship with their suppliers and most crucially, their customers; ultimately starting to rebuild trust within the industry.

Complete traceability and full supply chain visibility enable retailers and their stakeholders to organise targeted and proactive recalls.