We all live and work in a digital environment. Products, services and facilities are powered and enabled by digital technology that cuts across boundaries and borders to affect the lives of a high proportion of the world’s population. It reflects one of the major characteristics of the food industry; everyone needs it and is coming to rely on it.
Much the same can be said about standards. Largely hidden from public view, standardization has developed over the past 100 years as a fundamental, indispensable part of the world’s economic and social infrastructure. Standards are usually developed by groups of subject experts, representing a wide range of players in diverse markets (including the end consumer), operating at both a national and international level.
Digitized food supply
The digital environment is transforming the processes associated with food production and distribution. From farm machinery guided by satellites to environmentally friendly packaging, digital technology is reducing costs, enhancing reliability and opening up new horizons. ‘Industry 4.0’, as this trend is sometimes called, has few limits to its practical application, but standards are essential for ensuring compatibility, integration and widely shared understandings and expectations.
With a global population forecast to rise by 2 billion in the next 30 years, together with the legitimately rising expectations of the poorest communities, reliable and sustainable food production (and its efficient distribution) needs to double during that time. This demands innovation, imagination and investment. Standards evolve to reflect technological and market developments and can also be used to support and promote them. Integrating an adaptable and flexible standardization system into the journey from idea to retail shelf is an attractive, quick and cost-effective approach to acquiring product credibility, encouraging financial support and gaining market acceptance.
There is a move in standards across all sectors towards digital solutions, sometimes referred to as SMART – Semantic, Machine Applicable, Readable and Transferable. The food and beverage industry has traditionally used a mix of technology from upgraded “analogue” equipment to high-tech “smart” equipment across production sites, and up and down the supply chain. Establishing interoperability is, therefore, very important to ensure seamless production and to enable resource and efficiency savings. For both this, and for issues around data trust, standards (in all formats including digital) can supply solutions for the food industry.
Data transparency, for example, could bring significant benefits around provenance, but questions are often raised over who inputs the data, who controls the data and how data is kept secure from those who might mean harm or compromise safety. Answers to these questions can be found in the development of standards to enable rigorous governance of data, with standards written in future to draw together specific parameters for different products alongside standards that ensure data quality.
Stakeholders need to be able to trust food supply chains, and the quality of data used is therefore a major issue under discussion by standards developers. The ISO committee on Industrial Data (ISO/TC 184/SC 4), for example, is considering many aspects of the quality of data in standards such as the many parts of ISO 8000 on data quality. If something is wrong in the data, after all, failures can be spectacular – like the Mars Climate Orbiter, where a single value in a single digital file interpreted wrongly meant the spacecraft couldn’t survive in Mars’ atmosphere. It could equally be as mundane as the imagined story of Buttercup, born in March 2019, given the required inoculations and diet, slaughtered and put into the food chain in November 2019. All records of her life are up to date and stored in a blockchain: but Buttercup is not a cow but a pig, and data entered falsely (accidentally or intentionally) can result in a failure of trust. And, even if not as spectacular as a destroyed spacecraft, if the food supply chain data is flawed, interoperability and customer assurance become impossible to achieve.
Standards for food
Some examples of standards already in action and working for the food sector are tools that you may be familiar with such as PAS 7000 for supply chain risk management, which helps organizations to establish a supply chain information model so suppliers can demonstrate their credentials consistently. This could be digitally transformed in future to be used within existing and new systems. Another interesting standard from the content perspective, is PAS 96, which tackles the issue of protecting food and drink from attack. In food safety, other key management systems standards may also be of use, such as ISO 14001 for environmental management and ISO 50001 for energy management (to help sites reduce their CO2 emissions and costs by improving its operations). These management systems standards all provide an excellent framework for business to trade effectively with partners globally and, whilst they could be transformed for digital use, they might also be delivered to organizations in a much more tailored fashion in the future, with discovery, interpretation and adaptation tools. They are already well suited for the digital environment as they exist to help streamline practices and processes. Generic in nature, they are as applicable to the food industry as to the automotive or aviation industries. Another familiar example is ISO 9001, Quality Management Systems, which has had a transformative effect on businesses worldwide.
International consensus standards, developed, delivered and applied with the help of constantly evolving digital technology, help ensure a consistent approach and best practice, and offer a sound basis for sharing expectations and building confidence. In this digital age, they already exist to help you to build trust with your team, your customers and your suppliers. And where they are not already integral to digitized technologies, they probably soon will be.
Sara Walton is the Food Sector Lead (Standards) for BSI, an International Standards Development Organization and the National Standards Body for the UK. She has over 10 years’ experience of standardization, working with representative stakeholders and leading UK committees in food safety, quality and occupational health and safety, producing practical standards solutions in areas of interest to government, industry and civil society.