Digitalization is already having a transformative effect on supply chains across all sectors, improving efficiency and transparency, reducing cost and boosting sustainability while creating conditions for more resilient business practices. This is as true for the food industry as it is for any other sector. The digital and online changes in methods of purchase and delivery, which have been predicted in the food chain for some time, have been advanced more quickly by factors like the Covid pandemic. As a result, for now and for the near future, it seems that the food sector offers arguably some of the greatest opportunities for transformation.
Aside from ensuring that products arrive while still fresh, organizations in the food supply chain have a responsibility to protect public health. The associated risks to organizations are both legal and reputational.
The transparency that digitalization enables has huge potential for tackling these challenges. Data sharing and collaboration between organizations at different points in the supply chain will maximize transparency around the provenance of food products. Many producers are likely to have ambitions for this data to include information on the source of all ingredients going into a product or handled in the same factory as that product.
Digitalization should improve and simplify safety practices for food producers and retailers, making product recalls faster and more accurate while enabling sources of contamination to quickly be traced and dealt with. Digitalization will allow organizations in the supply chain to act dynamically where safety concerns arise, providing the ability to target their response accurately, thus minimising the costs involved.
In protecting against food fraud and adulteration it will be vital to get time-sensitive data to those who need to access it. Currently, this can be made difficult by the complexity of food supply chains and the necessity of securely dealing with sensitive data.
Addressing this requirement, BSI has been participating in the two-year Trusted Bytes imitative, using digital technology to facilitate the flow of goods across international borders. BSI’s involvement includes developing an application programming interface for customs clearance that complies with the World Customs Organization’s standards framework. The initiative aims to create proof of food provenance by digitalizing cross-border transfers and providing real-time digital connectivity throughout the supply chain.
Improving consumer confidence through traceability
For those consumers who wish to find out more about where their food has come from, digitalization could make the information more easily available and accessible. This could be particularly helpful in the future to those consumers with allergies who need certainty over what a product contains and where it was made.
Demand for supply chain transparency is also driven by ever-changing trends in consumer preference. One good example of a consumer-driven change is the growth in popularity of plant-based diets (the Future of Food Report by British supermarket Sainsbury’s predicts that a quarter of Britons will be vegetarian by 2025, with the retailer reporting a 65% year-on-year increase in sales of plant-based products). The reality could soon be that, whether they are concerned by allergies or dietary choices, an app-based solution could instantly provide all shoppers with key information about the contents of a product when they scan the barcode.
Technologies are already in place
Digitalization of food supply chains requires the use of existing technologies alongside the development of new ones. One technology that has rapidly matured and found new applications is blockchain. Not many years ago this was considered a prohibitively complex tool with potential only for niche applications. However, blockchain – being inherently transparent and resilient to tampering – has proven to be an ideal method for ensuring traceability in supply chains.
An example of how this functions in practice: a digital twin of a crop can be generated from data supplied by the producer. This can include a batch ID, variety, harvesting date and location, alongside relevant details of how the crop was grown; for example, whether it qualifies as organic or Fair Trade certified. At each stage of the supply chain, transaction data can then be appended to this digital twin. When this raw crop is processed or mixed with other ingredients, the blockchain will retain all the details of every product used. The information on the blockchain is visible to all contributors at every stage of the supply chain and cannot be tampered with retrospectively, allowing safety issues or instances of contamination to quickly and easily be traced. Traceability can continue all the way up to the level of the consumer who can, as mentioned previously, scan the barcode on the food’s packaging and see the journey of each ingredient from farm to supermarket.
Standards; facilitating better supply chains
There are standards already in place that can help key aspects of digitalization of the food supply chain to have the greatest possible positive impact, particularly with regards to food safety and quality.
BS EN ISO 22000 – Food Safety Management Systems - sets out requirements for any organization working in the food supply chain, laying out how they can implement a system to ensure food is safe for consumers. PD ISO 22000 is a practical guide that gives clear advice to organizations that wish to put strong systems into place.
PAS 7000 – Supply Chain Risk Management – is a supplier prequalification framework that specifies a universal package of supplier information designed for sharing between supply chain partners, making it simpler for buyers to trace and secure their supply chains, mitigating risk to public health and brand reputation.
Together, these standards guide organizations in following best-practice, so that supply chain digitalization can help the food industry to become ever-safer.