Food Traceability and the IoT Solutions Improving It

Food traceability is finding increased demand in the food retail business. IoT and blockchain are powering new solutions to optimize product quality and transparency for consumers.

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A corn field and a fork with a strawberry
Illustration: © IoT For All

Food is an essential component of human life as both a necessity and a pleasure. Globalization has opened wider markets and allowed access to exotic foods, meaning food distribution is increasing in scale. Year by year, global food traceability market revenue is rising. The market is expected to generate $22.27 billion by 2025, a rise compared to its estimated value of $10.96 billion in 2017.

However, ensuring efficient transport, quality and preservation when importing and exporting food across long distances is a challenge. Add this to the growing global concerns around food ethics—availability, organic, chemical-free and ethical sourcing, and the demand for market optimization is evident.

According to the Transparency Imperative report, approximately 90 percent of customers are concerned about the amount of detail provided on food labels. 74 percent of respondents are prepared to change brands in favor of more extensive product information, such as ingredients and sourcing. The report also revealed that more than half of shoppers aren’t fully aware of what ingredients actually entail, to their confusion.

Food production and transportation companies need to meet the desire for fresher food that gets from the place of origin to the table as quickly as possible. In addition, they also have to align with consumers’ needs for more ethical products to be able to hold their market positions, for example, in more accurate labeling.

IoT and Blockchain Need to Converge for Better Food Traceability

In recent years, companies have turned to technological solutions to improve their logistics, enhance customer experience, build long-term customer relationships and improve profits. In particular, they’re set to improve trust and transparency with specialized traceability solutions at the cross-over of IoT and blockchain technologies.

Improving Food Traceability

Food traceability is often not as simple as the “from field to dinner table” thinking makes out. It usually involves a number of steps such as harvesting, transportation, quality checks, packaging and more, each of which comes with its own challenges. These steps can be slight and discreet, but sometimes they result in food scandals, such as the UK’s horsemeat fiasco of 2013, which may have a long-lasting negative effect on business reputation.

To mitigate possible adverse impacts and to improve the overall transportation process, companies are increasingly engaging and benefiting from the assistance of the IT sphere, in particular, Internet of Things (IoT) and blockchain technologies.

IoT helps track technical issues and malfunctions along the supply chain, including food items’ physical journey from one place to another.

At the same time, blockchain for food traceability allows all its participants to see the data recorded at previous stages, meaning that customers will be able to track their foods from the place of origin to their carts.

How Can IoT and Blockchain Be Used in Practice?

IoT and blockchain can be used in many ways to improve food traceability. Below, we’ll take a look at some of them:

  • IoT can enhance food quality by regulating temperature, lighting, air conditioning, watering and more. For example, for growing vegetables or fruit, IoT can be adapted to create favorable conditions for growth, ensuring food is at its optimal ripeness before picking and shipping. For example, CropX Inc. offers IoT technology for measuring the state of soil for better crops cultivation.
  • IoT can examine foods on the production line to ensure compliance with food standards, meaning that no inappropriate products will be packed and sent to stores. It can be used to check size or ripeness of products to ensure that every item is of the same quality.

For example, the Muse-Tech project uses IoT sensors to monitor bread and potato chips quality and wort brewing. Another company, SugarCreek, uses cameras to analyze the products and detect quality and standard variations.

  • Food waste is minimized as IoT, especially in combination with computer vision, can sort out spoiled products in a timely manner. For example, if there’s a spoiled tomato in a pack, it’s very likely that the whole pack will rot quickly. But, if the product is detected and removed early, more food can be saved overall.
  • With IoT, it’s possible to monitor food safety during transportation. If the foods being transported are easy to break, a sensor-equipped system can monitor and notify about the condition in real time during delivery, leading to less wastage and lowering costs for businesses.

For example, Zest Labs makes it possible to track food freshness during its delivery, resulting in better food supply management and estimated food waste reduction of over 50%.

  • IoT can be applied to machinery, from autonomous transportation devices to delivery lorries, to optimize operating processes. To improve the machinery uptime, IoT systems can monitor and predict technical malfunctions and breakdowns.
  • If any contamination happens in the product supply chain, IoT makes it easier to track the product’s history, meaning faster detection of possible sources of the issue and reduced risk of initiating larger-scale product recalls.
  • Blockchain collects and provides customers, producers and anyone involved in the network with detailed information on product origin, processing, packing, delivery, storage conditions and ingredients. The data can be stored in customer-facing applications accessed by scanning QR product codes or labels, meaning end buyers can access information about specific products and batches from their gadgets almost immediately.
  • Collecting data with IoT allows integrating critical information from multiple sources into a single hub. In addition, blockchain provides a venue to store and operate this information in a secure way, with a deeper analysis of food supply chains.

These are just some of the solutions that are already used successfully by companies seeking to boost productivity, customer satisfaction and revenue.

The Cases of Transparency Improvement

Major food retail industry leaders such as Walmart, Nestle, AEON, Unilever, Japfa, Tyson and others have already discerned the advantages of IoT and blockchain. They have kept on top of the latest developments with their own custom software to enhance their connection with their customers and optimize the food traceability process.

For example, in September 2018, Walmart started its own program to guarantee food safety to its customers, called the Walmart Food Traceability Initiative, backed by IBM. The program requires that Walmart’s suppliers control, collect and represent to buyers the data on their products in real time. Shoppers trust the brand more as they get reliable and accurate data and can track their food lifecycle.

In addition, the program helps improve customer feedback and to identify and remedy product issues timely. For example, it enables a quick recall of a contaminated product without affecting a wider batch.

Final Word on Food Traceability Tech

The food retail market is highly competitive. To attract new customers and keep current ones, businesses have to maintain their reputations. For these, food manufacturers and retailers often have to take calculated risks and apply new technologies to their already well-established workflows to be able to stay ahead of the market.

IoT and blockchain present attractive solutions due to established case studies and effectiveness. However, this effectiveness largely depends on the quality of the new technology, and how well it’s implemented and maintained.

Written by Jan Guardian, the Head of Digital Marketing at Itransition.