How Data Delivers Solutions for Fractured Food Supply Chain

Accurate, data-driven supply chains move beyond transactional relationships, focusing on innovation and collaboration.


Most consumers don’t think much about the source of their food, that is until it’s no longer available or somehow tainted. Food has been on everyone’s minds in 2020 with shortages and increasing home grocery prices up 4% in some areas of the country. The outlook for 2021 isn’t much better, as the global supply chain from farm to fork struggles with industry crippling upheavals.

What’s wrong with the food supply chain?

Agribusiness supply chains are complex due to the manual labor required to grow and harvest crops and livestock, deliver it to market for processing and then to commercial and consumer outlets.

For food providers, the challenge has been being able to keep track of food products in real time. Many raw foods are initially labeled (tagged) for tracking at the time of harvest, then again at initial processing and often yet again at distribution for retail. The tags are defined by the initial information and not what may be final at fulfilment.

Complications, occasionally with lethal consequences, occur with food safety recalls. In the past year, there have been romaine lettuce recalls due to suspected E. coli contamination. Processed meats are susceptible to Listeria. The ability to find products once they have left the farm or processing facility and find them quickly is a public health necessity. Consider in 2019 the USDA issued over 300 recalls. There are also recalls around pet food. Products can be recalled for pathogens, improper labeling for allergens or products found to have foreign material contamination.

In the last six months, the global food supply chain has been stressed with shifting consumer needs, historic freezing weather in Texas and other U.S. states that grow significant crops. Recently, a skyscraper-sized container ship stuck in the Suez Canal made international news as it caused an international supply chain traffic jam of food and livestock. Products can sometimes be easily re-routed, but oftentimes not. And, when it comes to delicate fresh food, it’s important to consider the specialized cold transportation logistics. Monitoring product location and product quality is essential.

Technology and community solutions

Industry does have solutions. All industries have supply chains, and the agribusiness industry can learn and improve from solutions used by the pharmaceutical industry to move temperature sensitive products and the aerospace industry with regulatory requirements for parts security and authenticity to ensure safety.

The enhancements made in Internet of Things (IoT)-driven devices and data collection are modernizing and revolutionizing supply chains. IoT can introduce sensor tags that can live through more data points in the supply chain, originating from the source and follow the product with over-the-road tracking in real-time with a high level of accuracy. Today’s technology has produced intelligent tags that can also track environmental conditions such as temperature monitoring in a cold chain transport and provide information on identity, location and transaction history. The introduction of blockchain solutions provides added security and applications as well as a means to prevent tampering and provide authenticity for fresh products with market valuable organic and local labels.

Transformative data

The role of data in today’s supply chain should be viewed solely from the aspect of improvement and change and the degree at which each can occur. The value of data can be measured in two distinct ways -- the quality or integrity of the data and its ability to create transformative impact. By developing a single community framework to build into a cloud-based solution, supply chain data can be accessed with a cell phone, alerts, or notifications to follow the tag. Tags can be followed out, and more importantly, back in the case of a recall.

But, while IoT sensors have valuable uses, the solution is only as valuable as the data it produces. If the tags being used are not being scanned by IoT devices, they fail to provide real-time data points along the supply chain.  This disrupts the continuous visibility of food products along the entire supply chain route, resulting in a loss of timely information and product location. Lack of credible information can be costly. Without accurate data, companies can lose time, resources and product due to information holes in their supply chain.

Over the next few years, supply chains will become resilient and agile. A community using a common framework would solve many of the fractured data issues. Organizations will be able to improve the customer experience by delivering on the vast array of customer preferences.  As we move into a post-pandemic world, supply chains will collaborate with brands and products to develop sustainable, channel-appropriate solutions.

The pandemic has highlighted the importance of supplier relationship management and being a customer of choice. Accurate, data-driven supply chains move beyond transactional relationships, focusing on innovation and collaboration.

By following the pharma, aerospace and automotive industries, supply chain innovators, food producers and retailers can take it from shelf to fork -- all interconnected.