Up close with international food supply chains - the need for visibility and transparency

 (Source: Unsplash)

(Source: Unsplash)

Commentary

All over the world, supply chains are now increasingly seeing the light of dawn, being thrust into the limelight as key stakeholders clamor for visibility. The U.S. freight industry now overlooks the hard enforcement of the ELD mandate, which comes into effect on April 1, less than a week away. The FMCSA considers the mandate to be a step forward in improving the safety of drivers and their operations on the road, while bringing in greater visibility on the number of hours the drivers are behind the wheel.

The FSMA rule from the FDA beckons in a few months, which will regulate most fleets that haul consumable and perishable freight across the country. This is a hard deadline for the smaller fleets - the larger fleets were already required to be compliant last year. The FSMA is an act that was passed in 2011 in response to an outbreak of salmonella and listeria due to unsanitized freight transportation processes, and authorizes the FDA to enforce regulations to improve the situation.

Though these mandates look to be excessive regulations and documentation on the freight industry when looked at on the macroscopic level, they are essentially ways through which supply chains could gain more visibility. Looking at the food industry in particular, consumption needs of people have been drastically changing over the decade requiring supply chains to adapt to the current situation - requiring it to be tighter and more transparent.

Consumer-driven demand for internationally sourced food products has been on the rise lately, and the onus is on the cold supply chain to keep the product fresh from the farm to the fork. People have woken up to the reality that a lot of what they consume is laden with preservatives that help extend shelf lives. Social media and general awareness of healthy living standards are urging people to go for fresh market produce and organic food.

Sans the artificial preservatives, food produce runs the risk of becoming inedible much faster than usual, putting international food supply chains in the heat. The pressure is palpable - not only do the supply chains need quicker times for delivery, but they also need to make sure their cold storage containers maintain conditions conducive to keeping the shipment fresh.

Take for instance, the import of bananas into the U.S. - the Latin American countries like the Dominican Republic, Colombia, and Panama that make up most of the banana supply into the country. If bio-bananas with a shelf life of about four days need to be shipped, it is vital that the supply chain does not suck up most of its lifetime in transit.

In that stead, the advent of industrial IoTs (IIoTs) could be considered a disruption in the cold chain segment. IIoTs can help key stakeholders with real-time tracking and freight monitoring, enabling them to understand conditions required to keep the produce fresh during transit.

There also is the need to keep out fraudulent products from the food sector. For example, seafood shipments have seen a lot of fraud with one in five samples that were tested in the lab turning out to be mislabeled - with a lower-quality fish being upsold as an expensive variety.

Larger food companies and supermarkets have their brand value at stake when they are dealing with fraudulent products creeping into their inventory. Globalization is partly to blame - managing suppliers and sticking to an effective sourcing strategy is mind-numbingly complex for international supply chains.

Efforts need to be taken to wipe out rogue players in the food chain ecosystem, and technology could pave the way for an effective solution. Blockchain is an effective deterrent, as it maintains an immutable decentralized record of the process and holds all the stakeholders accountable for the supply chain transparency.

Walmart, which supplies 20 percent of all the food being consumed in the U.S., has been hard at work on blockchain pilot projects to trace every operational step of its food supply chain. Using blockchain, Walmart claims to provide all the information a consumer wants to know about a specific product in 2.2 seconds. This is unprecedented, as Walmart prior to working on blockchain took nearly seven days to trace food produce back to the farm that grew it.

This ability to instantaneously track food produce would solve problems concerning contamination, helping companies understand its origin to effectively cut off the spread at the stalk. This also saves a lot of produce from going into landfills, as the need to discard a whole shipment for a few infected apples would no longer be the norm.

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