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The Complexities of a Modern Food Supply Chain, and the Role of Tech in it

by Sysco LABS Articles 12 September 2019

Written By: Pivithuru Amarasinghe – Sysco LABS EAG R&D Team 

The food supply chain has gone through a lot of change within the past few years. Today, most large scale food suppliers introduce new technology into their supply chains in order to obtain on-time supply of food products and deliver high-quality products.

However, in today’s world, even that isn’t enough. Now, customers don’t just consider the price of a product when making purchasing decisions, the quality plays a major role as well. In fact, quality plays such a big part in customer decision making, that some large scale food suppliers even allow their customers to verify the quality of a product by themselves.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), An estimated 600 million — almost 1 in 10 people in the world — fall ill after eating contaminated food, and 420 000 die every year, resulting in the loss of 33 million healthy life years [1].

To try and maintain the highest standard, when it comes to our food, audits are conducted on the food supply chain. In fact, there are globally recognized audit types for every single stage in the food supply chain. They cover everything from farming to packing and storing to transporting.

By keeping all these audit certificates in one reliable place, a major food supplier can provide quality food products with traceability. Most of the food suppliers request these audit data from their stakeholders, but the problem is, that audit data transferring does not happen in real time.

Sometimes it takes months to transfer audit data from the stakeholder to the food supplier. Worse yet, some audit certificates expire after a certain time period. When this happens, it’s the food supplier that needs to inform the stakeholder to renew it. This is a time-consuming task that can be automated using engineering.

To elaborate more, let’s look at a small example. Think about a packet of bacon you bought from the store.

First, let’s look at the bacon preparation process. The pigs are raised at a farm and are sent to the processing plant. In most cases to produce bacon, the pork belly or meat from back cuts are sent from the processing plant to a separate manufacturing plant.

The manufacturing plant does the production and packaging of bacon. Then comes the distribution process. In this whole process, there are several places where audits happen. They are:

  • Farm
  • Processing Plant
  • Manufacturing Plant
  • Storage Warehouse
  • Distribution Truck
  • Retail Store

In terms of the farm, there are audits that mainly consider the health of the pigs and how sustainably they are raised by the farmer. When it comes to the processing plant, the audits ensure that meat processing happens under proper condition, and so on and so forth. For every stage mentioned above there is one or more audit.

This mind you, is just the auditing for a single packet of bacon. So, to function as a large-scale food supplier, these audits need to be in one place. However, the practicality of bringing all these certificates to one place, is quite challenging if done manually. And once that’s done, processing this audit data and providing traceability is another task that is near impossible to do manually.

So, engineering is there to connect these dots.

If we think about this from a software engineering perspective. We have data in different places that need to be taken into one place in a safe manner. Then we need to process them.

There are applications to share audit data among stakeholders in the supply chain. Trellis[2] is an existing open source framework built on top of Open Ag Data Alliance(OADA)[3] for real-time audit data sharing in a secure manner among stakeholders.

OADA has data formats related to agriculture. For example, if a farmer needs to send data from his harvesting tractor to some other party like a government organization that collects harvesting data, OADA provides a data format and a platform to transfer data securely between two parties. Trellis has introduced audit data formats for OADA.

Trellis has in fact, introduced audit formats for Good Agricultural Practice(GAP) [4] such as CanadaGAP, GlobalGAP, etc. These GAP formats represent audit formats for farming. In order to represent manufacturing plants, there is a Good Manufacturing Practice(GMP) [5]. Audit formats like BRC[6] represent all the supply chain stages using the following four categories.

  • Food Safety
  • Storage and Distribution
  • Packaging and Packaging Materials
  • Agents and Brokers

Since OADA supports implementing different audit formats in its platform, any food supplier can implement their own audit formats and use OADA to more efficiently transfer data among stakeholders.

A simple solution would be to give an OADA instance to every stakeholder and supplier can take the audit data from the stakeholder using OADA. In this kind of a solution, stakeholders would be farmers, manufacturers, distributors, retailers, audit firms and the supplier. So, the obvious question would be, how can a stakeholder like a farmer or a stakeholder who hasn’t got an IT division spin up an OADA instance?

And that’s why we have engineering

Simply, we can spin up an OADA instance using an AMI in an AWS environment by asking the stakeholder to follow a few clicks. This approach would be suitable for a stakeholder who has basic IT skills. Or, if the stakeholder has an IT division, which is typically the case for large entities, we can programmatically spin up an instance in an environment like AWS, Google Cloud, AZURE or OpenStack using a programming language like Terraform [7].

References

[1] https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/food-safety

[2] http://trellisframework.org/

[3] http://openag.io/

[4] https://www.ams.usda.gov/services/auditing/gap-ghp

[5] https://ispe.org/initiatives/regulatory-resources/gmp

[6] https://certifications.controlunion.com/en/certification-programs/certification-programs/brc-british-retail-consortium

[7] https://www.terraform.io/

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