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How to Improve Food Safety Supply Chain Management

The food supply chain is a particularly complex one to manage. You need to take environmental and time constraints into account to make sure perishable items get from the point of production through processing, distribution, and retail/wholesale operations before they spoil. Food safety regulations that have emerged over the past few years have added more complexity.

Relevant regulations in this space include the Bioterrorism Act of 2002 and the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), which require improved data on food origins as well as lot and traceability information to help improve the recall process across the food safety supply chain. The U.S. Department of Agriculture also recently released new rules that even require grocery stores that grind raw beef products to keep records about where the meat came from, lot numbers and production dates, and the date and time each ground beef product was produced.

There have also been advances in detecting and tracking food contamination incidents. For example, there is PulseNet, which state public health laboratories use to analyze bacteria strains from sick individuals and then report to the CDC. The FDA Reportable Food Registry requires companies to report serious product contamination as well.

These new regulations also offer an opportunity for stakeholders across the industry to improve food safety supply chain management by leveraging technology to improve compliance, make the recall process faster and more accurate, and reduce costs. Companies can also improve their own safety performance in the following ways:

Carefully vet all suppliers, distributors, and carriers. Failure to comply with best practices when it comes to food safety can put your brand at risk, so make sure you know exactly where your products have been, including all storage facilities, trucks, and other stops along the way. Investigate the safety practices at those facilities. Find out what kind of testing they do, and how often.

Conduct regular audits. Establish a formal auditing process for your own facilities and those of your suppliers or carriers. This also will help you document your own food safety supply chain improvement efforts.

Create comprehensive purchasing agreements. Involve food safety professionals in outlining supplier agreements so you can minimize risk. Have requirements in writing relative to meeting federal and state rules and regulations, as well information on their own supplier agreements and notifications of any supply changes.

Maintain accurate labeling. The Bioterrorism Act of 2002 requires importers to provide a significant amount of information to the FDA prior to importation of food, including lot, code number or other identifiers, information about he submitter and transmitter, and other identifying data.

Likewise, the FSMA requires a comprehensive product tracing system to track the movement of food from the farm to the point of sale or service. This is so producers can contain outbreaks of foodborne illnesses more quickly.

Implement accurate tracking technology.  As in other industries, the food safety supply chain can benefit from the use of automatic identification technology. There are efforts worldwide to extend food supply chain tracking right back to the individual animal. Governments and suppliers around the world have invested in livestock traceability systems, often using RFID transponders, and these efforts can even extend to the point of delivery or purchase.

omniQ, for example, has developed an RFID-based tray tracking solution that allows bakeries to track deliveries and provide information about the baked goods on the tray to reduce stales and automate replenishment processes.  This also provides needed lot tracking control to identify exactly what batch of products went to what locations.

In addition to barcode and RFID labeling, there are number of high-tech approaches to automating food safety processes. For example, iCertainty and Zebra Technologies created a solution that combines iCertainty’s software, Zebra’s mobile computers, and wireless temperature probes to provide real-time information on food safety audits.  Temperature and other environmental measurements can even be gathered from the point of origin to delivery to ensure that conditions were not exceeded at any point in the journey.

Develop an emergency response plan for recalls and emergencies. With accurate food safety supply chain data in hand, you can perform more targeted recalls and get the contaminated food off the shelf much faster. Establish specific responsibilities for your own team, develop protocols for each supplier and retailer, and have a response team ready to inform consumers and work with the media.

By working with suppliers, creating a clear response plan, and leveraging automated tracking technology, food manufacturing and distribution companies can maintain compliance while also improving traceability and making the recall process faster and less expensive.