Food Safety and the Supply Chain

Ensuring food safety in the fresh food supply chain represents a major challenge for the industry. Over the past two years the fresh food industry has experienced multiple E. coli outbreaks related to romaine lettuce alone. In 2018, according to Food Safety Magazine, there were over 382 food product recalls related to E. coli, listeria and salmonella, as well as for undeclared allergens and foreign material contaminations.

Everyone in the fresh food and produce industry takes food safety outbreaks very seriously but the number of outbreaks indicate that we need to come up with new ways of addressing these situations.

The Food Safety Challenge

Hard to Identify the Source

In many cases, the challenges we face when dealing with food safety in the supply chain involves first identifying what caused the issue and then trying to work back through the supply chain to find the source. If the source of the food safety contamination is identified – and often it is not – the producer must then determine where all of the food from that source was distributed.

Tracing food back to the source and then forward to the consumers can take weeks or months and, too often, the food has already been consumed or discarded.

Unnecessary Food Waste

Improving food safety is a challenge, to be sure, but, because public health is involved, it has to be a priority for the industry. Saving lives and preventing illnesses is the first priority. However, there’s also an environmental and financial cost. For example, when an issue was identified with romaine, everyone including retailers, restaurants and consumers, were instructed to destroy or dispose of all romaine. Because the industry isn’t able to identify specifically impacted lots, tons of perfectly safe romaine ended up in landfills, creating greenhouse gasses and huge losses for the industry.

Technology Can Help Address the Food Safety Problem

There’s a tremendous amount of effort employed to solve the food safety problem but sometimes it seems that not much progress is being made. This is largely due to a lack of traceability data about produce along every step of the supply chain.

Blockchain Data Can Be Incomplete

Blockchain is often cited as the solution to the problem and, likely, it will be a component of the solution but, on its own, blockchain does not solve the food safety problem. This is because the data about the produce (e.g. the producer, lot number and date information) is often incomplete or unavailable due to gaps in the supply chain data collection process. Data gaps throughout the supply chain can make traceability for food safety difficult, if not impossible to solve.

IoT Sensors Can Collect the Data

This is where IoT sensors can play a significant part of the solution. Not only can IoT sensors be implemented to reduce food waste, if we apply sensors to each pallet of produce, beginning at harvest, we can:

  • automatically and autonomously build a traceability record for each pallet as it moves through the supply chain from the producer to the retailer or restaurant
  • help reduce errors in paper-based and manual tracking as well as simplify operations and minimize impacts on labor

From Field to Consumer Data

This methodology can be applied for field harvested produce, such as strawberries or romaine hearts, where there is a continuous path from field to store and also for processed produce, such as packaged lettuce mixes. For processed produce, pallets can be tracked from the field to the processor and then that data can be linked to the packaged produce from the processor to the customer.

Data Available from the Cloud

The data collected by IoT sensors can be autonomously transmitted to cloud-based applications to create a record for food safety traceability that includes harvest data, produce condition data, processing and testing information. This data can be controlled and accessed by participants throughout the supply chain.


Zest Fresh for Food Safety

The Zest Fresh freshness management solution can provide complete fresh food supply chain traceability as data about the products’ source, processing, handling and transportation is autonomously collected and managed in the Zest Fresh cloud. Zest Fresh also monitors cold chain integrity to help ensure that fresh food is always stored at the proper temperature to impede the growth of pathogens. Automated traceability helps improve food safety across the supply chain.

The PMA’s Dr. Bob Whitaker’s perspectives on rethinking food safety.


The challenges associated with labeling and food safety