One aspect of food likely to become of increasing interest to the consumer post-coronavirus, and one which is pertinent to both retail and foodservice, is traceability. As consumers start to ask more questions about the origins of what’s on their plate, how can the industry use technology to alleviate food security and traceability concerns?
Thanks to the combined effects of coronavirus and Brexit, people are more concerned than ever about where their food comes from.
As of June 2020, more than 1 million people had signed a petition urging the government to ensure future trade deals do not lead to an increase in imported foods that would be illegal to produce in the UK. In July, Food Standards Scotland (FSS) called on businesses and consumers to be vigilant against the heightened food fraud risks arising from the coronavirus outbreak.
But even prior to the pandemic, manufacturers and retailers were increasing efforts to trace food in a bid to maximise transparency throughout the supply chain. Many began adopting blockchain technology to achieve this and to quickly source information on suppliers.
Blockchain technology is a way of storing and sharing information across a network of users in an open virtual space. It allows users to look at many transactions simultaneously and in real-time. This is especially useful within the food industry, and since transactions are not stored in any single location, it is almost impossible for the information to be hacked.
Blockchain technology also has the potential to boost consumer confidence about the provenance of their plate. By reading a simple QR code with a smartphone, information from an animal’s date of birth, to the use of antibiotics can be sourced within seconds.
But this technology can also help boost productivity.
RiverGlide is helping its client ‘QA Chef’ to develop what it calls a ‘world-leading food-safety and traceability solution’. It says most large-scale non-automated caterers still rely on pen and clipboard, costing man-hours and generating thousands of pages per year with virtually no way to trace items through the production process.
QA Chef uses a combination of hardware and software to produce a digital map of every dish’s food safety journey, from raw ingredients through to your customer’s plate, providing end-to-end traceability of every aspect of the production process.
David Cox, CEO of QA Chef, tells us: “COVID-19 has made consumers more concerned than ever about the safety of the food products they’re buying. Manufacturers have offered reassurances that they are following food safety standards (such as HACCP), but with many large-volume, high-risk caterers still relying on pen-and-paper, they are unable to offer much in the way of proof.
“We are also seeing consumer concerns growing around allergen tracking. While some manufacturers may use ‘alibi labelling’ (e.g. may contain nuts), this does little to help a consumer make the right choices. It’s clear that we need a robust traceability system that can demonstrate compliance from when a product enters a facility until it leaves.”
Jon Shayler, COO of Erudus, agrees. His data sharing business is already seeing an increased consumer appetite for more data in more places, driving new demands and behaviours.
He says: “We’ve had to adapt our platform to include new attributes that dig deeper into a product’s make up, its origins, its accreditations. The industry will need to adapt to these requirements in the future. Consumers are living in a world of choice and opting to vote with their wallets and loyalty, and they’re only going to get more demanding, especially in terms of anything that has an environmental or social welfare aspect.
“At Erudus we believe that the enriched off-pack data and making it easily accessible to both caterers and end consumers, is the future of foodservice.”
Of all the new technologies explored in this series, those which can help guarantee food security are arguably the most important. While the hospitality sector has taken a huge economic hit, the recession now affecting the wider population is likely to create a sharp rise in food insecurity.
Coronavirus has, so far, claimed more than 700,000 lives globally, upended food supply chains, drained food banks and restricted the planting and harvesting of crops. It has also exposed a lack of investment in food technology that could have eased global food security issues.
When considering a post-COVID-19 food system, we must focus on building resilience through technology.
Blockchains will allow agricultural commodities and ingredients to be actively traced throughout the supply chain. It will mean that if production workers fall ill, preceding parts of the supply chain can be reconfigured. Products can also be readily recalled, limiting further spread of the virus. Sensors embedded in packages can also provide quantitative assessments of food spoilage.
As we emerge into a post-coronavirus world, we need to look not only at how technology can keep our businesses open, but also strengthen our supply chains so they are ready to take on the next big challenge.