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In the digital age of the Internet of Things (IoT) technology and data management can potentially deliver greater efficiency, process management and improvements in food safety. By taking advantage of data science, food companies can improve transparency, be better prepared for pest and weather challenges, avoid contamination and prevent wastage by ensuring optimum food safety levels.
Improving transparency through IoT tracking and traceability
Enabling the tracking and traceability of goods immediately improves transparency and benefits consumers at the end of the food supply chain. In the case of a foodborne disease outbreak for example, IoT enables the supply chain to provide immediate insights such as where the contamination started, where it originated from, who might be liable and how the problem should be rectified – such as with the removal or correction of the defective / contaminated product (recall) before it can cause any more problems.
Forewarning with predictive modelling
Recent research from Quocirca (commissioned by Rentokil Initial)1, which interviewed 400 respondents responsible for the management of food safety and hygiene across the UK, US, China and Australia, found that many companies are already considering new ways of working. These include initiatives such as real-time reporting, to get to the heart of problems as quickly as possible. At the same time, the research also indicates that predictive modelling presents a huge opportunity to meet food safety challenges of the future. Being forewarned of a pest outbreak based on data around the weather forecast and prior infestations can minimise food spoilage, for example. Computational tools that predict pest movements can help farmers pre-empt outbreaks and manage crop rotations. Similarly, precision agriculture, based on measuring and optimising granular field operations, is a type of predictive modelling technology which increases yield, and with that expert pest control.
Improving food safety through hygiene monitoring
Data when used wisely can enable effective hygiene management. In food processing, data on employee health and handwashing habits can be used to help employees share verified data with the company directly. This proactively avoids the possibility of spreading viruses and bacteria by preventing workers from reporting for work when contagious.
Within the processing plant itself, hyperspectral scanning can pick up where bacteria and viruses are already present, triggering the use of ultraviolet lamps and wands to treat any surfaces and to help prevent airborne cross contamination. Any foodstuffs that are contaminated can be identified more easily and either suitably treated or removed before they cause greater problems. This is particularly useful when it comes to providing evidence of compliance and continuous improvement against major food safety standards. The availability of such data means that managers can measure and know radically more about their businesses, enabling a huge opportunity for improved decision-making and better performance.
Preventing food wastage through advanced automation
Efficient use of data can even help prevent food waste. Through analysing sales information, weather forecasts and seasonal trends, manufacturers can find an “optimum inventory level”, which they can then use to reduce the effects of food wastage. In addition, technology such as advanced automated warehousing enables food to be stored in discrete specific zones to minimise the wastage. Each zone can have highly specialised systems that monitor and manage areas such as pest control and hygiene. For example, these systems can treat incoming salad foodstuffs before they get to the processing line, to prevent the infestations of blackfly, snails and other pests without contaminating the actual processing line itself.
The need for collaboration for smart data usage
Making the best use of data in the age of the IoT however, naturally requires data sharing, as well as a culture of collaboration between IT departments and data professionals. It will work only if the data is accurate, which requires a willingness to share. In the future, a contaminated food item as it moves through the supply chain can be immediately identified and prevented before the food ever reaches the retailer.
With new technologies such as blockchain, storing and sharing information across a network of users in an open virtual space becomes easier and safer. Allowing users to look at all transactions simultaneously and in real-time, can bring huge advantages for every stage within the supply chain - whilst effective use of data can provide the foundation for a more sustainable, transparent, efficient and profitable future for the food industry.
1Rentokil Initial, The Impact of the Internet of Things: From Farm to Fork (2017)