Thoughts on Food Safety and Supply Chain Management

According to a recent ARC report, “Food Safety: Are We Getting Better or Worse?” (available to ARC clients only), statistics show that the number of food-borne illnesses and their severity have remained relatively constant over the years. “In the US, this translates into 76 million gastrointestinal illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations, 5,000 deaths, and billions of dollars in costs.”

Despite scientific and technological advancements in so many areas, we’re really not improving the safety of our food supply. Compare that with car safety. Car crashes in the US killed about the same number of people in 1950 as in 2009 (about 33,000 and 34,000 people, respectively). Yet, the population of the US and the number of miles driven have increased significantly over that time period. The dramatic gains in automotive safety have been driven by tougher regulations, better vehicle designs, and changes in people’s behavior (e.g., less drunk driving and increased use of safety belts).

Why is it that dramatic safety improvements have been made in almost every area, such as the manufacturing floor, mining, and driving, but not in food safety?

The ARC report argues that global sourcing and rapid distribution are some of the reasons.

The Red Sudan incident is a perfect example. Sudan 1, a banned carcinogenic red food dye, was used to make red chili powder. This single ingredient created a major global incident before authorities discovered it had entered the global food supply chain, prompting dozens of product recalls. Over 600 food products were recalled. These included curry sauce, Worcester sauce, pesto sauce, ready-to-eat meals, soups, sausage, pizza, and Dijon mustard from major food companies such as Unilever, Heinz, McDonald’s, Tesco, and Sainsbury.

My youngest son wore me down recently and got me to watch the documentary “Food, Inc,” which was nominated for an Academy Award last year. The movie, which was surprisingly good, argues that large food companies have gotten so much bigger, and their plants too, that if something bad happens it affects many more people today than in the past. Also, despite tens of thousands of food SKUs in a typical grocery store, many foods are often just clever recombinations of a relatively small set of common foods and additives. Again, a problem with just one of those raw materials can affect a large number of people. Finally, the film argues that these mega food firms are politically powerful and have been largely successful in helping to derail tougher regulation.

I’m business oriented, so I recognize that companies need to make a profit and that regulation increases costs. But my view is that tracking and tracing using paper records is not sufficient. We need electronic tracking and product genealogy that extends across a “farm to fork” supply chain.

Near real-time visibility is important. I recently heard an off-the-record story from a software vendor that offers a multi-tenant global supply chain visibility solution. This vendor has a client that manufactures food additives in China, and one of their customers is one of the largest food companies in the world. The food company wanted to know how close the ships carrying their food additives to North America were coming to the radioactive fallout from the nuclear plant catastrophe in Japan. The food additive company was able to use near real-time and historical tracking information to show that the shipments were completely safe. Presumably, this meant the food company did not have to engage in costly tests for radioactivity once the shipments arrived in the US.

In addition to improving food safety, food companies can use an end-to-end electronic track and trace system for a variety of purposes. These solutions could help to balance demand and supply, be part of anti-counterfeiting efforts, lead to improved asset tracking (think returnable pallets, leased ocean containers, or leased rail cars), and serve other purposes as well.

After watching “Food, Inc.,” my son came to different conclusions than I did. He thinks we need to buy more organic products and eat less meat. I agreed to start buying organic milk, but I’m not giving up cheeseburgers!