Have you ever wondered where the food on your table comes from? Who made it? Whether it was sourced sustainably? If the answer is yes, you have probably realized how hard it is to answer any of these questions: supply chains are becoming ever more complex, and consumers have little visibility on basic information such as the origin and the journey of their food.
Hello, can I trace you?
To help answer these questions, Barilla, an Italian pasta manufacturer, in collaboration with US technology giant Cisco Systems, is equipping its products with a digital passport capturing entire food journey from “field to fork”. By scanning a QR code on the package, the consumer is able to access the information stored on the “Safety 4 Food” cloud platform and learn about the field where the durum wheat was grown, the plant where it was transformed and packaged, as well as the journey it took to the store’s shelf. Barilla stated intent is not only to enhance transparency and safety, but also to create a connection between the consumers, the people and the regions where their food was produced, hence fostering awareness and understanding of the social and environmental implications of food production standards and consumer choices. Moreover, the system acts as an effective tool to fight counterfeit products, an issue estimated to represent as much as 10% of the total grocery market. Barilla’s solution is for the moment only in pilot phase but, if successful, it could lead the way to a revolution within the industry.
Trace it like it’s hot
Over the last few years, food traceability has become a “hot topic”. On one hand, recent scandals involving incorrect labeling, such as the horsemeat issue at Tesco in 2013, have tarnished the industry’s image and made consumers acutely aware of the issue, triggering a strong demand for more transparency and quality checking.
On the other hand, governments and health organizations have become increasingly aware of the public health risk posed by ever-more entangled supply chain networks, and by food production standards that can vary widely from region to region. And if it is true that food safety issues remain rare, their potential impact in today’s world could be devastating.
Finally, the industry calculates that food recalls and foodborne illnesses bears an annual price tag of $77 billion, mostly consisting of discarded products, loss of revenue and healthcare costs.
No wonder then that governments have tightened the regulation around food production practices and traceability. The FDA, for instance, has passed in 2011 the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), aiming at shifting the focus from responding to contaminations to preventing it, and traceability is an important component of the overall strategy.
Food traceability systems, such as the one offered by the Food 4 Safety platform, provide hence substantial benefits to all stakeholders, including consumers, governments and business, in terms of:
- Preparedness: visibility into supply chain helps be better prepared in case of an emergency
- Response: emergency response by all stakeholders in case of an emergency
- Recovery: rebuild trust with consumers into the safety and resiliency of the food system
- Prevention: determination of causality of the problem through root cause analysis to prevent future issues
Figure 2: picture of a food supply chain in the era of the Internet-of-Things
But the Internet of Things is expected to provide much more than just information about the origin and journey of our food: sensors disseminated all along the supply chain are expected to continuously monitor a set of key indicators such as temperature, light exposure and jostling experienced by products. Such information, recorded on the cloud, will be available to manufacturers, fleet managers, retailers, and end consumers alike, to allow for corrective actions and informed purchasing decision
Time to scale up?
Despite the great success of its pilot project conducted in connection with the 2015 Milan Expo, Barilla has not set a timeline for the full-scale deployment of its technology.
This is a pity, as the solution would not only deliver substantial value to consumers and regulators, but also serve as an extremely powerful marketing tool for Barilla, helping it to differentiate its products by delivering a strong message on the quality, social and cultural relevance and sustainability of its products and supply chain.
Given the importance of the food industry in Italy and in Europe, the development of food traceability systems leveraging IoT needs to become an absolute strategic priority for governments and companies across the continent. Only this will allow companies such as Barilla, focused on quality and social responsibility, to set high standards for the entire food industry of tomorrow.
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 “From the Ground to the Grocer, Barilla Makes Use of Cisco’s Internet of Everything to Give Consumers Insight into the Journey of Their Food”, Cisco Systems Press Release (San José, CA , Sept. 16, 2015)
 Jeffrey Castillo, “Traceability Across the Entire Food Supply Chain”, Agriculture Technology Summit 2016 (Champaign, IL, Feb. 18, 2016)
 “Cisco and Barilla Partnership: Embracing IoT to Give Consumers Insights Into The Journey of Their Food”, Cisco Systems Press Release, November 17, 2015, http://www.penelopeonline.it/downloads/rassegnapdf/Cisco-Barilla%20Partnership_17Nov2015.pdf
 “The big cash in counterfeit food: why you might not be eating what you think you’re eating”, Brent Bambury, Day 6, CBC Radio, April 1, 2016, http://www.cbc.ca/radio/day6/episode-279-playing-ball-on-grass-vs-turf-taytweets-big-fail-narco-subs-fake-food-and-more-1.3514966/the-big-cash-in-counterfeit-food-why-you-might-not-be-eating-what-you-think-you-re-eating-1.3515053
 Felicity Lawrence, “Horsemeat scandal: where did the 29% horse in your Tesco burger come from?”, The Guardian, Oct. 22, 2013, https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2013/oct/22/horsemeat-scandal-guardian-investigation-public-secrecy, accessed Nov 16, 2016
 Lorbiecki, M., The race to trace: the need for traceability in the food & beverage industry”, Food Manufacturing, Apr 26, 2016, http://search.proquest.com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/docview/1784422806?accountid=11311, accessed on Nov. 16, 2016
 Xiaorong, Honghui, “The Design of the IoT Solution for Food Supply Chain”, 5th International Conference on Education, Management, Information and Medicine (EMIM) (Shenyang, China, April 24-26, 2015)
 James Andrews, “How the ‘Internet of Things’ Will Impact Food Safety”, Food Safety News, June 12, 2015, http://www.foodsafetynews.com/2015/06/how-the-internet-of-things-will-impact-food-safety/#.WCurxcmbipU, accessed Nov. 16 2016