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From farm to table: IoT in supply chains

Consumers are demanding an ever-greater variety in fresh food products as the cold chain, or perishable supply chain, becomes increasingly globalized. At the same time, people are demanding more transparency about where food comes from to ensure that they choose and get the healthiest and freshest products. To establish this trust, we must be able trace the path of food from the fields to the point of purchase — or table.

From a preference for grass-fed beef to concerns over the safety of romaine lettuce, the market demands unprecedented levels of quality and regulatory information — a major challenge as the supply chain covers greater distances and involves more suppliers and partners than ever before, which potentially exposes food products to more risk of contamination or spoilage. This is a huge economic issue for suppliers and consumers alike as it contributes to the estimated 30-40% of food production that is wasted, according to a joint report by the World Bank and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN.

Farmers and other food producers use a number of IoT technologies, including sensors and drones, to monitor production, but that is only one part of the solution. Logistics companies and shipping partners must coalesce an unbroken chain of custody across all transportation modes using different information systems to ensure the safe delivery of fresh food from the farm to the table, whether that table is in a market, restaurant or at home. A key component of this assurance is real-time monitoring of each shipment while in transit.

The cold chain is a sub-segment of supply chains encompassing frozen and cool parameters, and it has a distribution infrastructure that maintains consistent temperature and other environmental conditions at or within specific ranges based on the type of in-transit goods. The cold chain is what makes it possible to source fresh fruits and vegetables from around the world. Without the cold chain, in effect, modern cuisine could not exist.

Three stakeholders generally have the strongest interest in a cold-chain shipment: the farmers or prepared foods businesses, the shipping companies that move the goods, and the restaurants and grocery stores that receive them. Monitoring of these perishables using IoT technology makes is possible for these three groups to share real-time information about the location and conditions of the shipment from origin to point of sale. This data must be available regardless of who is in custody of the products. It must be auditable to verify that they arrived in good condition and that the conditions complied with all food and environmental regulations. It is important to show that quality was maintained so that each stakeholder’s brand reputation is also maintained.

In the past few years and even in 2018, there have been a number of newsworthy food recalls. Investigators have been hampered in their ability to determine how food contamination or spoilage occurred because it has been difficult to trace the food all the way back to its origin. This information hurdle sometimes results in undue blame placed on the wrong parties and even consumer mistrust in a brand because of a lack of visibility into the entire supply chain.

An auditable cold chain based on data captured from smart sensors and devices can provide a log of a shipment’s location and condition, not just at certain points where cargo changes hands or is inspected, but continually throughout transit. These small, low-powered sensors placed on individual pallets or cartons transmit data to a cellular gateway or Bluetooth-connected device installed within a truck or shipping container. These devices transmit data to a cloud platform where it is available to the people who need access to the information.

If a shipment exceeds specified thresholds for temperature, humidity or other factors, real-time alerts can help logistics and shipping partners take action to remedy the situation before an entire shipment is damaged or lost. Because the smart sensors connect to the cloud, the data collected is available regardless of whether the shipment is in the hands of a shipping company, a customs inspector, a third-party logistics firm or another participant in the supply chain. This provides accountability, ensuring that problems are resolved and responsibilities are properly assigned.

In case of a recall, it is important to trace food back to its origin in order to identify the source(s) of a problem. This information helps ensure that only the affected products are recalled and risks are properly identified while costs and customer concerns are kept to a minimum. The entire supply chain must work together to identify where contamination first occurred, if it happened during production, storage, processing, shipping or retail, and, more importantly, what precautions are needed to prevent the problem from recurring.

IoT technology helps dramatically lower cost and risk for sensitive perishable cargo such as produce, meat and dairy products. These innovations could not have come at a better time as the “farm to table” concept continues to grow in market share. More importantly, IoT technology is proving that it can help consumers get what they really want: fresh, delicious food they can trust.

All IoT Agenda network contributors are responsible for the content and accuracy of their posts. Opinions are of the writers and do not necessarily convey the thoughts of IoT Agenda.

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