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Digital Traceability: Reducing Risks and Finding Efficiencies

Written by Alex Lewis, Parity Factory Corp.

The ongoing crisis has shed light on the need for innovation in the food space, even in the most fundamental processes.

If someone were to ask you which industries were most important to our daily lives, what would you say? Along with things like communications, construction, and clothing, one of the first things that likely comes to mind is also one of the most basic: food. The agricultural and food processing industries provide for our most key needs and enables our continued growth. It is unlikely anyone would argue against the importance of the food and beverage industry to our society, however 2020 has brought us a loud and clear reminder of just how crucial it is, in the form of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

In just a few short months, food and beverage manufacturers saw demand increases that haven’t been seen in a lifetime. At the time of writing, sectors of the food industry have experienced spikes in volume ranging from 32% in milk, 30-47% across the snack sector, and a staggering 77% increase in demand for meat, and this trend holds true for nearly every vertical within the industry.

The stay-at-home orders announced by most governments have sent consumers rushing to the store, clearing shelves and placing new strain on food and beverage processors. As they struggle to keep up with their order volume, many manufacturers are looking for new ways to improve their efficiency and reduce their liabilities. As it turns out, one of the most effective methods may also be the simplest: digitizing their lot tracing.

What is digital lot tracing?

All food and beverage manufacturers track their lots. In fact, it is one of the basic requirements for running a food processing business, with the specific standards and protocols defined at the federal level by organizations such as the FDA. By requiring tracking of all material that is involved in making a product, down to the packaging used, it ensures that recalls can be performed swiftly and protects the health of the public. Manufacturers manage their tracing using a variety of methods, from pen and paper, to Microsoft Excel, to fully integrated traceability software, with many using a combination of methods. Digital lot tracing simply means that a company is capturing and managing their tracing data on a digital platform, often integrating scanning and barcoding into the process. This approach has a drastically lower error rate than more traditional methods and tends to be significantly more efficient.

Despite tracing being a common daily task that all processors contend with, there has been surprisingly little momentum towards automated lot tracing in food. By some metrics, only 1 in 5 operations have fully automated their lot data capture, with a bit more having partially implemented the process. The food industry has always been slow to adopt new processes, but as demand and competition skyrockets, many are finally feeling the need for an upgrade.

The risks of a recall

Executing recalls, specifically executing them quickly and efficiently, is one of the biggest challenges that food and beverage manufacturers face. Under current FDA guidelines, food and beverage processors need to be able to perform a recall within four hours. Many of the major retailers demand even more of their suppliers; if you want your product on the shelves in a Walmart or Costco, you must be able to perform the same process in as little as two hours. The unfortunate reality is that for processors tracing on paper, particularly those producing at scale, these targets are difficult to hit. Also, the human element involved in manual tracing can allow errors to find their way into data, and this has become especially true for those who are dramatically increasing their throughput to keep up with new demand caused by COVID-19. Without true, reliable data, a recall can quickly go from difficult to impossible.

The consequences of a botched recall can be dire: the average recall costs a manufacturer $10 million, not including possible fines from regulators, or losing the aforementioned Walmart or Costco contract. One of the biggest losses is one that may not be immediately obvious: consumer confidence. Over half of consumers will quit purchasing a product once it has been recalled, and studies have shown that a company’s stock price will typically drop as much as 22% following a major recall. Once that confidence is gone, it can take months or even years to get it back, if it can be regained at all.

All these problems can be mitigated, if not completely prevented, through digital lot tracing. With a capable solution in place, recall times can be measured in minutes, not hours, as a few quick searches replaces shuffling through endless forms to find the lot in question (if it was recorded correctly at all). This guarantees compliance with even the most demanding of rules and regulations and eliminates all fear when inspectors and auditors show up for routine recall tests. In addition, the ability to execute a speedy yet thorough recall when problems arise minimizes the risk to both consumers, and the manufacturer’s reputation. The bottom line: most food manufacturers are going to face a recall at some point. It is crucial to have the systems in place to react appropriately when that time comes.

How does it increase efficiency?

Due to the huge importance of lot tracing, manufacturers using manual systems often have some of their most competent and experienced employees devoted to the task. Even if these staff would be better suited to other areas, it’s just not worth taking the risk of assigning less experienced employees to the job. Digital lot tracing solves this by drastically simplifying the tracing process. Scanning a barcode and letting software do the rest is far quicker, easier, and less error-prone than meticulously creating and tracking hundreds of lot codes by hand. Meaning that you end up spending less time on tracing, and therefore less money, while winding up with data that is significantly more reliable. This both frees up an operation’s most capable employees to pursue new opportunities and allows anyone in the operation to take part in the tracing process. New employees can be trained and onboarded quickly, which is particularly useful for processors hiring huge amounts of new labor in the wake of COVID-19. 

All of this allows for greatly increased flexibility when it comes to staffing, and as COVID-19 turns the industry on its head the value of that flexibility has become crystal clear. While many of us have had the luxury to transition into working from home, that’s just not an option for many working in the food space. When employees are unable to attend work, for example if they are sick, someone else must step in. This can be a major threat to efficiency when the few people in your operation qualified to handle lot tracking are missing. In dealing with turnover and staff redistribution, there’s tangible benefit to having a system that allows employees to be effective, regardless of their experience level. 

For those looking to digitize their lot tracing, there is no shortage of solutions to accomplish that task. However, a sufficiently robust solution should go beyond just traceability. If you are tracking each lot as it moves through your facility, it creates great possibility to capture additional data such as yields, storage locations, and quality information. In this way, digital lot tracing can be viewed as a foundation on which to build even more extensive efficiency improvements. These additional features are some of the most important considerations for any manufacturer to make when choosing between available systems.

Preparing for an uncertain future

COVID-19 has proven that swift, unpredictable changes can happen in any industry, even one as foundational as food and beverage. With new issues such as shifting demographics, climate change, and the variable nature of trade on the horizon, it is likely that changes will become more frequent and even the smallest efficiencies will be essential to thrive.

Customer consciousness is also changing rapidly, and businesses that want to stay competitive have no choice but to change with it. As consumers and regulators demand ever more transparency and accountability from the food industry, reliable tracing data is becoming ever more crucial.

Manufacturers will undoubtedly rise to these new challenges in the future, just as they are rising to the challenges of today. And along the way, many will find a comprehensive digital lot tracing system to be one of their most valuable tools. 

Sources/Further Reading:

Acorn Surfaces & Treatments
for Concrete Restoration Products and Services

Breaux, Randy. “COVID-19 Shows the Need for Automation.” Foodprocessing.com, Food Processing Magazine, 2020, http://www.foodprocessing.com/articles/2020/power-lunch-covid-19-shows-the-need-for-automation/. 

Deloitte. Recall Execution Effectiveness: Collaborative Approaches to Improving Consumer Safety and Confidence. 2010.

Demetrekakes, Pam. “How the Coronavirus Is Affecting Food Processing.” Foodprocessing.com, Food Processing Magazine, 2020, http://www.foodprocessing.com/articles/2020/how-the-coronavirus-is-affecting-food-processing/.

Lelieveld, H. L. M. Hygiene in Food Processing. Woodhead, 2017.

Stier, Richard F. “How Food Processors Can Create a Plan for Traceability and Recalls.” Food Engineering RSS, Food Engineering, 11 May 2020, www.foodengineeringmag.com/articles/98026-how-food-processors-can-create-a-plan-for-traceability-and-recalls.

Torero, Maximo. “How to Stop a Looming Food Crisis.” Foreign Policy, 14 Apr. 2020, foreignpolicy.com/2020/04/14/how-to-stop-food-crisis-coronavirus-economy-trade/. 

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Innovation – Emerging Agribusiness Technologies

Originally Published in Oct-Dec 2019 Quarterly

Sheri McClure

Good business leaders are always trying to do the best for their stakeholders, their employees, and their customers; but they don’t always have the time to research new ways to make their businesses more efficient and sustainable. Luckily, talking to experts is what we do best. We want to share three emerging technologies that can help you streamline your agribusiness in remarkable and eco friendly new ways.

Basil and lettuce being grown hydroponically in a large greenhouse. Water usage is only 1% of regular farming!

Vertical Farming

Traditional farms require mass quantities of acreage and are subject to issues like unseasonable weather, fallow land, and pests. With increasingly unpredictable weather, a growing aversion to pesticides, and an ever increasing population to feed, agricultural areas are feeling additional pressure. Vertical farms have become one way farmers can address these issues.  

It may be helpful to think of vertical farming as the technologically-advanced urban cousin to traditional greenhouses. Of course, each company offers systems with different features, but the overall goal is to utilize vertical space in a safe, controlled environment that greatly lessens each farm’s carbon footprint. Vertical farms can also be housed in old warehouses or other unused buildings, which could help boost the economy of underutilized urban areas and bring fresh, local produce to these communities.

I spoke at length with Niko Kurumaa, the International Sales Manager for Netled (pronounced net led) about Vera, their closed vertical farming solution. Netled has its roots in tomato farming, but was developed as a daughter to their greenhouse business after 20 years in industry. Their primary crops are leafy greens, like basil and lettuce, and they are expanding into the cannabis industry. Netled were pioneers in LED grow lights back in 2007, and have continued to push the technology of indoor agriculture with Vera. 

In general, vertical farms cut the farm’s carbon footprint and transportation costs. They even allow farmers to utilize more layers of soil since most of the good soil has already been used. Vertical farms can also be housed in old buildings or even skyscrapers–urban spaces where traditional agriculture would not be possible on the same scale. 

So what exactly is Vera and what prompted Netled’s recent 11 million dollar contract with EU company Astwood Infrastructure? Niko began by explaining Vera’s automation benefits. “Vera uses 95% less water than traditional farming,” he said. This decrease is primarily attributed to the water circulation system. The plants are watered, but when they give up additional moisture through natural processes, the AC system captures it, condenses it, and reuses it. The Netled engineering team has proven that Vera circulates 98% of the water used, which makes this type of farming more sustainable and aids in doubling average crop production. Recycling water in these closed environments also keeps chemicals out of the soil, which is helpful because the chemicals can affect future crops and contaminate drinking water.

But I believe Netled’s success is about more than a great product. “We see ourselves as a technical partner, not just a technical supplier,” Niko explained. The company has their own testing facility in Finland, where they are based. (Although they are actively looking for partners in the US and an operator in Indiana.) Netled is constantly improving the product and will test their customer’s crop in their own facilities to make sure everything is working optimally. In addition, Vera comes with a 10 year maintenance agreement, and their software connects all of the Netled farms globally to their tech. In other words, whether you’re in Finland or California, their team can help ensure that your vertical farm is functional and efficient. 

Management Software & Services

Agribusiness consists of a lot of moving parts. It is important to have reliable methods for tracking things like production, shipping, sales, and compliance. There are companies like AgriCare, located in the Central Valley, that manage some or all of these aspects for businesses. But there is also a growing list of vertical software technology that you can manage with or without additional support to keep your business organized. 

One of these resources is Chasqui (pronounced cha-ski), a platform managed by Ciclo. I met Oscar Aguilera, Co-Founder and VP of growth at Ciclo, at the NCIA’s Cannabis Business Summit and Expo in July 2019. I was impressed by their services, and was even more excited to learn that their product can be customized for any type of agribusiness. 

Ciclo places a huge emphasis on meeting their customers’ needs. In the legal cannabis industry, there is an enormous need to remain compliant despite everchanging and dense guidelines. Their platform, Chasqui, helps to keep growers and distributors compliant. But the software can also be customized for more traditional crops and their agricultural needs. 

For customers who would like additional support, Ciclo is there to provide managed services for Chasqui customers. You can use the software straight out of the box, but Ciclo wants to ensure that your and your businesses needs are reflected in your software customization and support. They begin by speaking with new customers over the phone. Their representatives want to understand your business, including its challenges, workflow, and processes, so you can customize the software to work best for you. This preliminary call is followed by hands on and face-to-face site visits, so you can feel comfortable with the product and its uses. They even have representatives who are fluent in both English and Spanish, so everyone involved in your business can have their voice heard. 

Management software like Chasqui makes it easier to keep tabs on all aspects of your business from anywhere at any time. It is important to find the best product for your business needs, but finding one that marries customized software and face-to-face customer service sounds like a promising start.

Alternative Energy

Notice that this section is not called Solar Energy. Solar can be a great way to go, and there are great companies like Sunworks Solar Power in Roseville, Wildwood Pools and Solar in Fresno, and SPURR in Concord. But these days everyone knows at least something about solar energy. What you may not know is that you can take solar on or off the grid. The companies listed above can help customers learn to bank their own solar energy and use it when they need it most instead of selling it back to large energy corporations. And Dr. Micro Grid consultants can help you get off the grid entirely. But solar is not the only option.

We met the Executive Vice President and Senior Account Manager of Ice Energy at the Southern California Facilities Expo back in May, and we were fascinated by their innovative solution to the high cost of cooling commercial spaces. Instead of using a conventional HVAC unit, use ice. In many ways, their Ice Bear and Thermal Bear thermal storage AC units are the opposite of solar energy. When ambient temperatures and energy costs are lower, these units make ice. When temperatures and energy costs are higher, they use these huge chunks of ice to cool the coils that in turn cool your space. 

If you are currently envisioning a large block of ice in a big bucket a la Looney Toons, think again. These are slick, HVAC sized units that easily replace traditional units. Ice Energy claims their customers can save up to 40% on their overall energy costs, and up to 95% on their peak energy usage. They also have a pretty impressive list of big name customers in agriculture, retail, and industrial, including New Belgium Brewery, Staples, AT&T, Lithia Chevrolet, and Panda Express.

Each business is unique and requires different supporting services. We love speaking with experts about what they do, what they offer, and what they know. And we are always happy to pass along that information to our readers. Hopefully some of these new innovations piqued your professional interest and will help you learn new ways to run your business more efficiently and sustainably.