Managing the cold chain in today’s supermarket environment is like a game of chess: Each calculated move impacts the end goal of bringing safe, high-quality perishable food to consumers.
While the game continues to prove more challenging, thanks to a more complicated supply chain, as well as growing demand for fresh products, new technologies are helping retailers, suppliers and other players in the supply chain hone their strategies.
- Recently introduced technology, including Internet of Things (IoT) sensors, temperature-sensitive flexible barcodes and blockchain, can help to ensure the freshest product for consumers.
- These solutions also enable companies to better communicate with their business partners and demonstrate best practices.
- At the same time, deploying such tech will help companies meet increasingly strict federal requirements for food safety.
The latest tech tools — including Internet of Things (IoT) sensors, temperature-sensitive flexible barcodes and blockchain — are not only helping to ensure the freshest product for consumers, but are also enabling companies to better communicate with their business partners and demonstrate best practices, while meeting increasingly strict federal requirements for food safety. As an added bonus, companies are finding that they can measurably tackle food waste, fueling many firms’ mission statements to be more sustainable.
“Maintaining food quality and safety is a primary challenge facing retailers,” observes Amy Childress, VP of marketing and planning for cargo solutions at Emerson, based in St. Louis. With the FDA’s recently announced New Era of Food Safety initiative, technology providing traceability and other services to ensure an unbroken cold chain will receive a big boost, she predicts.
“This is especially critical with the global demand for year-round access to perishable products,” notes Childress. “Achieving this feat can require fresh produce to be transported by land, sea and air, encompassing the point of harvest, processing, cold storage and distribution — all before it ever begins the last-mile delivery to a store or restaurant. It’s staggering to realize that there can be potentially as many as 20 to 30 individual steps and multiple changes of ownership throughout this journey.”
Thanks to new connected IoT monitoring and tracking infrastructures, operators now have better potential visibility into each step of a food’s journey, and even the possibility for comprehensive cold chain traceability, continues Childress:
She points to the value of being notified in real time that an in-transit shipment has fallen out of the ideal temperature range, for instance. “This allows [suppliers] to correct the issue promptly with the carrier or even reroute the shipment to a nearby location and preserve that cargo,” notes Childress. “Retailers and growers can also track their shipments to ensure carriers follow proper routes and monitor delivery timelines. For retailers, these devices help them to validate produce quality on receipt and monitor all their suppliers to ensure they’re meeting the freshness standards that their customers demand.”
Retailers in Control
Challenged by the growing complexity of the cold supply chain, some grocery chains are taking more control of the process by producing their own perishable items. A few recent examples include Walmart’s end-to-end Angus beef supply chain, Costco supplying its own rotisserie chickens, and Kroger partnering with German vertical-farming startup Infarm to hydroponically grow selected produce right in its stores.
“A retailer that grows its own product, where it makes sense, can better control the process,” observes Jim Dempsey, director at Panasonic, based in Newark, N.J. “And if you grow it yourself, it’s easier to maintain that data to use on the blockchain — you have chain of custody.”
Joe Battoe, president and CEO of Chicago-based Varcode, notes that this development may also present some new challenges for retailers. “With this trend, more retailers are becoming manufacturers — not just managing a private label brand through a contract manufacturer, but more and more beginning to manufacture their own products,” he points out. “And with that, they’re needing to bring in specialty skills that really haven’t existed on the retail side before. When you’re going direct, you’re now subjecting yourself to a little more risk.”
In addition, Emerson provides facility and asset monitoring. “These advanced systems provide real-time access to the critical information that retailers need to immediately track, triage and quickly respond to issues related to food safety and quality,” says Childress.
“Twenty-four-seven, automated temperature monitoring and recording devices help operators eliminate the need for time-consuming manual documentation, access on-demand reporting as needed for food safety compliance purposes, and provide historical cold chain data.”
Another supply chain technology provider, Chicago-based Varcode, has developed a unique system to help companies monitor the cold supply chain from beginning to end, according to the company’s president and CEO, Joe Battoe.
Today, it’s not atypical for a company to have 10 or more changes in chain of custody from source to destination, he notes. While most companies actively monitor the temperature controls of perishable products while the items are in their custody, the problems are more likely to occur at the handoffs of product, he estimates. “For example, the product sits on the dock somewhere, and then the truck door is left open for an extended period of time, waiting for someone at the receiving dock to unload it,” Battoe offers.
Varcode’s patented solution, FreshCode, was designed to address challenges like this. The barcoded tag, which is flexible and looks like a little sticker, records constant temperature measurements throughout the supply chain, and data can be captured by any scanner or mobile phone.
“When you scan the barcode, it sends up who scanned it, what they scanned, when they scanned it, where they scanned it and the status, including whether it has been out of the prescribed temperature range and for how long,” explains Battoe. “Then that data is sent up to our cloud, and the cloud can notify in real time any concerned stakeholders in the supply chain. If they’re using a smartphone application for this, it can send down smart recommendations about what to do. We work with our clients to define these actions.” All of this data is stored in a blockchain-enabled data set, he adds.
Varcode was recently selected by the Walmart Food Safety Collaboration Council as one of eight companies to participate in the Walmart Food and Safety Innovation Pipeline. Bentonville, Ark.-based Walmart designed the program to advance food safety initiatives in China, aiming to pilot solutions in real-world environments. Meanwhile, Varcode is working on pilots and more advanced projects with retailers.
According to Battoe, the fastest-growing segment of the business has been buy online/pickup in store or home delivery, especially since FreshCode can monitor temperature all the way to customers’ homes.
San Jose, Calif.-based NextFlex, which provides flexible hybrid electronics (FHE) systems (electronics that can fold, bend and adhere to surfaces), is still in talks with the supermarket industry. “There are many potential applications for our systems, including smart displays, tracking tags, and environmental and condition monitoring,” says Jeff Bergman, program lead for structural health and asset monitoring at NextFlex, adding that cold chain monitoring is a “high interest” area for the company.
“Our consortium members have already designed and built prototype low-cost temperature monitoring tags to demonstrate the technology capability,” he says. “The concept is to integrate low-cost FHE temperature tags into existing product or shipping labels.”
Bergman continues: “With widespread adoption of FHE-based sensor tags, it may be possible to not only detect spoilage before it occurs, but to utilize that information to rapidly take action to reroute shipments or prioritize the sale of the product with the shortest shelf life first. This would reduce spoilage and other losses, creating higher profits for suppliers and lower prices for consumers.”