Asian Companies Lead The Way On Digital Solutions For Food Safety

Friday, April 26th, 2019

While not yet widely adopted, digitalisation offers substantial new opportunities to advance efforts on food safety today and will increase in importance moving forward. By DNV GL.

Safeguarding the health of consumers is the main driver for food safety according to a recent survey “Food safety: what’s next to assure its future?” by assurance provider DNV GL and GFSI (the Global Food Safety Initiative). Certification has been and continues to be core, providing benefits throughout the supply chain. Emphasising the human element, food safety culture is a rising topic.

Companies participating in the survey conducted on more than 1,600 food and beverage experts worldwide clearly indicated that safeguarding the health of consumers is the main driver.  According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), over 200 diseases are spread through food and one in 10 people fall ill every year from eating contaminated food. Much of the burden of unsafe food is preventable through sound food safety management.

In the survey, not surprisingly, operational risks, such as physical, chemical and biological contamination, is the overwhelming food safety threat for firms. Considerable attention and investments are channelled into food safety efforts, in particular systems and procedures such as HACCP, management systems (e.g. ISO 22000) and actions to incorporate food safety at the design phase of products. The next thing seems to be food safety culture; companies list this as a main risk and it ranks high among future priorities. A total of 64 percent plan to develop food safety culture programs.

When it comes to new digital technologies, however, only 8 percent of the respondents say these play a role to a “great extent” in food safety today, compared to 13 percent who say “not at all”.  Of the wave of new digital technologies, sensors and beacons (44 percent) are the most widely used solution today. This is followed by blockchain (15 percent) and smart tags and labels (10 percent).  A total of 27 percent of firms say they do not know how much they will in invest in digital technologies for food safety in the next 12-18 months. There seems to be a lack of clarity as to how new digital technologies will significantly advance food safety.

However, in three years, four in 10 companies indicate new digital technologies will play a role to a “great extent”. Blockchain application is expected to increase the most, rising from 15 to 40 percent in three years, but all digital technologies are expected to play a significant larger role in managing food safety three years from now.

Asian companies seem to lead the way in the application of digital technologies to manage food safety. Compared to eight percent on average, 14 percent say digital technologies play a role “to a great extent” in food safety today.  This number rises to five in 10 in three years.  They see particular value in blockchain with rates significantly higher than other regions both today and in three years from now, when 57 percent expect it to be used to address food safety. When looking to sensors & beacons, big data analytics, smart tags and labels and artificial intelligence and machine learning, Asian companies indicate higher usage across the board both in one year and three years from now.

“Digital technologies, such as blockchain, will transform many industries, especially those in the retail sector, but this survey indicates that many food and beverage companies have yet to transition from buzzword to real applications,” said Wendy Yap, Regional Food & Beverage Manager—Business Assurance, DNV GL. “Through our work on digital assurance solutions, we see blockchain technology already emerging as a key element in tackling operational and industry challenges, while bridging trust gaps within value chains and toward consumers.”

Take a box of supermarket sushi as an example. If the fish was produced on a farm, the owner could upload information about the farm itself, e.g. a code of conduct or information about people, fish welfare, feed and water quality.  Fish caught at sea could be tagged with the location of the trawler and the fishing method, storage conditions etc.  Similar information could then be collated at the processing site and transportation to the supermarket shelf. At the point of purchase, the consumer would be able to scan a smart label and get instant access to this information. By uploading the data to a blockchain, the data are safely stored and immutable to change.

The components of working ecosystems already exist; blockchain is already used to raise transparency helping brands build trust into their products. Blockchain-based ecosystems can enable companies to address specific operational issues and turn marketing buzzwords into a true, verified story. For companies seriously investing in sustainable processes and value chains, it enables sharing of these and other efforts to set them apart from less serious players, in a trustworthy and transparent way.

“When it comes to food safety, in particular, we have executed specific projects related to the cool chain of ready-to-eat meals,” says Wendy Yap. “Smart sensors on the product log temperature, time and location at the critical points along the value chain—from the raw ingredient throughout the production, during the transportation and logistics phase, and including the shelf-life in the store.  The data is uploaded into a the blockchain, which is impossible and immutable to change.  The information is communicated real-time to the producer, who can manage and improve performance. Through a smart-tag on the product, quality and safety can be communicated directly, in a trusted way, to the consumer ready to purchase his or her next meal.”

The food and beverage industry is facing increased pressures for transparency and higher levels of scrutiny of their products. Blockchain-based ecosystems that combine new technologies with assurance competence in terms of data integrity, industry expertise and independent verification, can address operational challenges and increase transparency to build trust in its operations, value chains and toward customers and consumers. They give companies a unique opportunity to share with consumers directly the authentic product story—from quality and safety to social, environmental or ethical integrity of a product—displaying verified facts stored on a blockchain platform.  The same technology enables direct interaction with consumers on specific products during a product recall, contributing to a precise and effective recall.  However, to advance in that direction will require collaboration and sharing of data among multiple players in the food value chain.

“The opportunities to comprehensively manage and build trust into the food value chain globally is tremendous. To truly reap its potential, producers and its suppliers alike must come together to compile quality data from farming to processing, from packaging to the store and consumption at home. If data are recorded, verified and shared, the potential can be expanded beyond individual efforts to creating early warning systems for recalls, reaching consumers at individual level. Connectivity provides a completely new means to manage our supply chains, improve and build trust within the industry and toward consumers,” says Wendy Yap. “The potential is huge, but what is quite clear is that to truly benefit we must work together as an industry. This was true when the food and beverage industry came together over ‘safe food for consumers everywhere’, and this is the only way to fully utilise the potential of new digital technologies to improve food safety.”