Technology enhances practices in many supply chains and can enhance the food distribution chain as well. The basic warehouse functions of receiving, stacking, picking, staging and shipping are shared among most operations. Bar codes and scanners smooth and speed processes. Radio frequency identification (RFID) tags and wireless networks are adding data to inventory systems and increasing the velocity of each warehouse activity. It is not just goods that must move at high velocity—data must flow even faster up and down the supply chain.
Perishable food adds complexity and makes the food distribution facility a fluid environment, also known as the cold chain. Facilities must be able to receive, document, and ship both perishable and non-perishable items with tremendous velocity in variable temperatures.
The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) was signed in January 2011. It is considered the most sweeping overhaul of food regulations in decades and puts the noble goal of reducing food-borne illness into operation at every step of the food chain. The act compels food companies to constantly assess risk in their operations and verify the safety of any food entering the distribution chain. That data must be available to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which has greater authority for inspections and records access on any food item—not just those that are suspected of causing a health concern.
Discovering and implementing the best practices for a given facility is a high priority to speed compliance reporting and records keeping in the cold chain. The FSMA is a timely piece of legislation, based on widespread media coverage of food recalls and foodborne illnesses. FSMA’s goals are a healthier, safer, more responsive food system for society and mandates new standards—and documentation—for traceability and verification of the cold chain from farm to fork, and mobile technology can help facilitate the process.
Traceability is increasingly important to food service companies’ customers. According to BBC Radio, consumers are 12 percent more likely to buy food that can be traced to its source, a fact reflecting consumer concerns about the food system. Food industry managers are seeing those concerns reflected in the customer base as well. Nearly a third of the food service executives polled by Voxware in a 2011 study reported that their customers were frequently or urgently asking about traceability compliance, and easily half of customers were asking at least occasionally.
Traceability also increases the speed of response when an outbreak occurs. Documenting food shipments between the farm and the consumer—whether through a grocery store or a restaurant at the retail level—makes it easier to take specific action to recall tainted food commodities before they are consumed by others. Swift identification of the sources of tainted food also preserves the integrity of the rest of the goods in the chain so they can continue flowing. Preserving that flow supports profitability for the industry and cost control for consumers.
Food needs to be properly tracked from where it is produced through potentially numerous parallel distribution channels. In focusing on the prevention and detection of food safety issues, cold chain compliance is more critical than ever. Monitoring the condition of the product with new mobile technology allows for much better compliance with cold chain requirements. This could also mean altering some contracts to ensure that a vendor captures the required data.
Cold Chain Monitoring
RFID readers, scanners, mobile computers, radios and wireless networks work together within the unique environment of cold chain through perishable food production, distribution, transportation, storage and sale.