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5. Food Tracks

Published onApr 16, 2020
5. Food Tracks

Remember Fred and Carrie in the 2011 Portlandia episode “Ordering the Chicken?” Dana, a server in a Portland restaurant, responds to Carrie’s request for more information about the chicken on the menu by launching into a long paragraph of descriptors for the bird, including “heritage breed,” “woodland raised,” and “fed sheep’s milk and hazelnuts.” Still not satisfied, Carrie and Fred read the official papers provided by Dana describing Colin the chicken’s origin and pedigree. By the end of the episode, the still unsatisfied duo get up from their table and announce they are off to visit the farm where Colin lived so they can verify all the claims made about his life before his demise.

Even though this episode appeared in 2011, the scene Fred and Carrie caused will be familiar to servers and restaurant-goers today. Today we want to unravel the whole journey of our food as it travels from field to fork, and the market is responding. And it’s not just the server that we interrogate. We expect our food labels to provide a full narrative of our food’s journey from farm to plate. Last week I held my smartphone scanner up to a QR code on a box of blackberries to see the smiling faces of the family who produced them. And in 2017, OriginTrail, a startup finalist from Italy in our Food+City Challenge Prize competition, began offering clients the ability to provide consumers with stories for ingredients as they pass through the supply chain.

The food industry is hot on the trail of technology that will help the industry, regulators, and consumers know where our food is at every step of the supply chain. Consumers’ growing appetite for information about food comes from the desire to trust the food system. As the routes our food takes change, the new footprints will need to be hyper transparent, traceable, and verifiable. There’s no greater opportunity to improve trust within our food system than by finding better ways to track and trace our food throughout the pathway from farm to plate.

Why? How has this happened, this awkward moment when the art of dining becomes the art of interrogation? Why are we obsessed with our food’s origin? Why is the quality of our food defined by the names and locations of the people who make it? The desire to know where our food is or has been is now one of our greatest cultural obsessions. As Eve Turow explains in her book, A Taste of Generation Yum, millennials and Gen Zers want to see and hear about who produces their food and who is at the other end of a food-related transaction. With the cultural turn away from presumptive trust of capitalism along with the desire for more personal connections, they want the food system to become visible and understandable.

The whole concept of time and distance explored in chapter 2 surfaces in the way we describe food roots and routes. And when we arrive at a system for knowing the full routing of our food, we may discover a need for compromise between our aspirations and our pragmatism. We may want a route that is fully traceable and knowable, but after we know enough to trust our food, we may move on to other obsessions. Those who remain obsessed will be those in the food industry who monitor food safety and security.

Tracking and tracing food is a challenging proposition, considering all the various methods and inconsistencies of record keeping. But adding in all the friction points where the flow is even momentarily arrested makes the tracking and tracing system even more complex. In some cases, scenarios for delayed food shipments are random. Some disruptions can’t be imagined, so we can’t predict them. The food supply chain is full of paradoxes and perturbations

Food Tracks

The race toward complete traceability will intensify before we find the sweet spot for food safety and trust. Now, food logistics companies announce another way to apply the latest technology to finding our food wherever it may be in the supply chain. Tracking our food even before it officially enters the supply chain is just one example of how our next bite may be closely monitored.

Facial recognition is beginning to enter our food system, making the Portlandia duo seem amateurish. Go-Go Chicken of China is using the technology to individually track each of their chickens from henhouse to your house.1 Each chicken wears a tracking device affixed to one of its feet to enable real time movements to appear on a customer’s cellphone. The IoT that enables other industries to track goods and services provides the platform for this Internet of Chickens (IoC) that tracks every movement of your drumstick. If you wonder whether your cage-free chicken really enjoyed a daily walkabout before its demise, now there’s a way to find out.

The company is confident about the demand for these high-priced chickens. They know the foodie, millennial, and well-to-do middle-class consumers will pay more to see more of their food. And who knows, maybe consumers will consider watching their food march toward their plates as a form of foodie tourism, a way to “visit” farms and meet the farmers. (By the way, it’s not just chickens; ZhongAn Technology is working on fish face recognition, and cow face recognition became a reality early in 2018. Yes, really.)

While the idea of virtually meeting your chicken before it becomes dinner may bring a smile to your face, it reveals that some of our news about innovation is complicated by a lack of understanding about what’s really going on in our food supply chain. While poultry facial recognition may feel a bit absurd, most of the technology we use to track our food from farm to table serves important purposes in food safety and security. For example, the IoT approach to food data collection and the use of blockchain are combining to address the problem of food counterfeiting and fraud. (See the last section of this chapter, “Blockchain: The New Superpower?” for an explanation of blockchain technology.)

The distribution of our food to our plates is one of the parts of our food supply chain that is under reconstruction, or “in disruption,” as our tech friends say. Not only is the pathway changing, but the means of tracking and tracing food throughout the pathway is changing, too. Having both change at the same time could be beneficial. Once the ground is upturned, it’s easier to install new networks. But this could also be a time of disorientation and high risk with so many parts of the supply chain under reconstruction.

Not only are so many points in our food routes changing, but they are also losing public trust through revelations about food contamination, animal welfare, food fraud, and lapses in our food safety inspection system. Trust among all the participants in the supply chain is critical. If the chain breaks, or if its integrity is even suspect, the risk and probability for contamination, fraud, or theft increases. To establish trusted relationships among all parties, everyone in the chain must have a good way to keep consistent, compatible records. Yet in practice, our global food supply chain is fragmented and inconsistent.

Hidden Trails

A company’s investment in food tracking and tracing technology—and it takes a significant investment—is related to its willingness to share information and its interest in communicating this new transparency. But some food producers and distributors consider their supply chain data proprietary, a form of intellectual property. As they see their business, the ability to source ingredients wisely is the very advantage that makes their company competitive in a highly competitive, low-margin industry. It may be that the culture of openness emerging in other industries will move food companies closer to sharing an important part of their intellectual property and competitive edge: their supply chain and logistics management strategies. But don’t hold your breath.

Those who work on feeding armies and refugees need to be transparent to contractors and suppliers all over the world, as they’re required to coordinate food supply chains to the most remote cities in the world. US food logisticians share data and logistics infrastructures with enemies to get access to roads and ports. Food tracking systems need to operate transparently so supplies can reach military sites and refugee camps around the world. These food logistics practices are now trickling out of the military and into the everyday supply chain, coinciding with a cultural change around the world now that consumers want to know where their food comes from. And all this desire for transparency could threaten our food security. Terrorists and hackers can see where our food comes from, too. But it works both ways: we will also be able to track down the counterfeiter, the thief, and other malefactors. Transparency is complicated.

Forks and Hope

Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark, written in 1876, is an account of the hunt for a fictitious Snark. Carroll tells his readers that the only way to track down the creature is to use forks and hope, two assets that most of us use to find out where our food comes from. Forks feed our curiosity, and hope is about all we have to sustain our search.

As we’ve seen, our food’s routes to our plates take more twists, turns, detours, and roadblocks than many of us have ever imagined. Most involve some type of aggregation facility, like a distribution center, hub, or warehouse. Some use only a vehicle—even a bicycle—to move food from a farmer to a consumer. When in Madagascar, I observed bread arriving in a small village carried by a young man on a bicycle. He reached into the basket behind his seat, pulled out a long baguette, and handed it to a woman waiting outside her grass hut. Some baguettes arrive through vending machines in Paris, of all places, and others fill grocery stores after being off-loaded from a tractor-trailer. A single food item has all kinds of routes to travel, and now we want to know more about those journeys, all of them.

The Midlands

Before entering the tangled world of tracking and tracing our food, we should look at how the routes we want to see are designed. Some of the routes are direct, but others, well, they seem to dash back and forth all over the map as our food changes hands between big distributors in tractor-trailers and couriers on bicycles.

All these players in our food supply chain—food processors, brokers, traders, food services, and warehouse companies, just to name a few—are middlemen in the system that brings our food to our plates. Today we are seeing a disintermediation of our food system as startups and inventors pick off one aspect of the supply chain and add a tool for optimization, personalization, or other value-added features such as localizing food sources. Like the financial industry that is watching millions of individuals who formerly relied on advisors to manage their portfolios learn to do it themselves using a phone app, the food industry will continue to see an evolution away from middlemen like food service distributors such as Sysco, to apps that find local meat producers who show you the exact chicken you’ll be dining on that night.

In some cases today, our food arrives through a route managed and owned by one company. Pepsico owns most of its own trucks and warehouses. Dominos gets us to use our own vehicles but manages the system through its own tracking system. Uber Eats is a more recent example of a combination of food service and a ride sharing company that contracts with individuals who use their own cars but operate using Uber’s software. A continuing mash-up of vertical and horizontal businesses will continue to emerge as food companies send their meals through partnerships with logistics companies, logistics companies send us food, and food companies make and send food through their own supply chains.

A number of third parties bring us food. These include transport companies such as UPS and DHL, brokers, and freight forwarders. Logistics companies such as UPS are finding ways to load more food deliveries through existing cold-chain systems and by feeding customers where they are already traveling. The cargo traveling through this Last Mile includes raw ingredients such as coffee beans and meat, meal kits, cooked meals, and groceries. Food in just about any form.

These third-party food carriers coordinate shipments, find transport vehicles, determine the best routes, and in some cases warehouse our food on the way to our plates. These companies in the food distribution part of our supply chain all work to optimize the time, costs, impact on the quality and safety of our food, and increasingly the environmental impact of transport. And there are advantages and disadvantages of any arrangement. Food services, including restaurants, risk a loss of consumer trust if a food delivery is compromised along the way. Say your pizza is cold or your ice cream is melted. You will think poorly of the food brand or company, not the delivery service that may have mishandled your precious pint of cookie dough ice cream. And consumers are an impatient lot: once they’re sent a cold pizza, they may never buy their pizza from that company again.

Distribution Centers: DCs

Distribution centers are in the thick of the tracking and tracing network. They operate as the hubs between networks and monitor the transfer of our food from one source to another. Distribution centers (DCs, as they are called in the logistics world) are a good place to begin to understand the challenges of tracking and tracing. One company that uses a range of distribution formats is Walmart. When I visited Walmart in Bentonville, Arkansas, I saw its distribution center, a sprawling building that consumed the contents of trucks on one end and sent them on their way, reloaded with full loads destined for regional hubs. Standing on the elevated catwalks in the distribution center, you can see across a sea of conveyor belts carrying packs of canned peas and jars of pickles toward trucks awaiting cargo below. Employees known as “pickers” hustle to snatch items that have arrived on one inbound truck and place them on conveyor belts in transit to other, outbound trucks. Multiple belts transfer items that are shunted onto other belts, moving toward other employees—“packers”—who assemble outbound shipments. Viewed from above, the whole system seems like a representation of nonstop global commerce.

The Walmart model is an example of regional centers that distribute food for large retail chains such as Safeway, food service companies such as Aramark, or restaurants like Cheesecake Factory. By 2017, Walmart had 173 distribution centers in the United States, including those for Sam’s Clubs, with a total square footage larger than Manhattan.2

DCs are where goods aggregate before traveling to consumers. High fuel prices and unpredictable demand for food in large cities encourage growth of these megawarehouses.3 The rise of the global economy beginning in the 1980s also created the need for DCs, and the economies of scale enabled large shipments to travel through distribution warehouses at lower cost than the smaller, regional hubs. The larger DCs operate 24/7, enabling greater optimization of truck routes while minimizing driver wait times. We’re about to see the disaggregating of DCs as regional and local demand ramps up and the means for predicting demand improves.

Some big DCs send items to smaller sub-DCs closer to cities. But some are smaller, taking the form of food banks and producers that use Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs) to distribute their goods. Food hubs are also a type of DC, a site that aggregates food from multiple producers for distribution in a metropolitan area or region. Some DCs use sophisticated software to match producers with buyers and to optimize routes.

All these activities contribute to the food supply value chain by expediting shipments, finding better routes, and providing warehouses or cold-chain services. The distribution of our food, in its many forms, whether done by a single company or through multiple parties and nonprofits, is about to change. Actually, it’s changing right now.

The Last Mile

The last delivery route between a hub, distribution center, warehouse, or even a produce stand and the consumer is known in the logistics world as the “Last Mile.” The Last Mile refers to the distance between the last distribution hub and the consumer, and it accounts for almost 30 percent of the total cost of transporting food. And it’s rarely a statute mile.

The actual distance of that last leg of the journey to our tables isn’t always measured as a mile. It may be as short as the Dominos driver’s route from the store to your front porch, or it may be hundreds of miles if the last distribution hub for a grocery store in Kansas is a port in Louisiana. Either way, the Last Mile is the distance that encounters the most traffic, parking issues, scheduling traumas, last-minute orders, logjams, and collisions. Traffic congestion isn’t new: Victorians in England complained about the congestion of horses and streetcars. But now, getting to your food to your plate is even more complicated in the narrow, cobblestone cities in Europe and the muddy, dirt roads in Indonesia. And now, it’s a traffic jam.

The Last Mile can feel like a million miles for a food delivery truck driver caught in traffic. After an excruciating effort to preserve a pint of fresh strawberries en route to our plates, a farmer may find that the fragile gems rot in the back of a truck on a hot afternoon. And in a developing country like Sudan or in conflict areas in Middle Eastern countries, the Last Mile may be impassable.

Deliveries of food to our local grocery stores or of bottles of wine to wine shops must take into consideration stairs, elevators, fragility of walls and décor, presence of customers in the retail space, and timing. One Last Mile delay early in the morning leads to an accumulation of delays throughout the day. This is a friction point in the supply chain that deserves attention from scientists and engineers who want to solve big problems in our global food supply chain.

Last Mile food delivery has a modern history that began during the late 1980s with early entrants such as Peapod and Webvan. Both came from the grocery business, promising to deliver groceries to homes near their stores. Peapod, a pioneer in online e-commerce, began operations in 1989 and still operates as a subsidiary of Ahold Delhaize. Amazon turned Webvan’s failure into Amazon Fresh, and other companies with similar objectives soon joined in the home delivery of food. FreshDirect, which began delivering food to areas of the Northeast in 1999, joined an increasing number of food delivery services. By now, there are at least 150 food delivery companies driving a Last Mile to deliver food to your kitchen. Amazon’s Prime Now links you to its own food inventory or those of its Whole Foods network of stores. It seems that there’s a rush to get to your door by every grocery store chain, from Costco and Walmart to Dominos pizza and the many independent food delivery services such as Doordash, Deliveroo, and Door-2-Door. It’s not uncommon to find grocery aisles jammed with personal shoppers who are picking and packing food for either the grocery store’s Last Mile service or for a contractor such as Instacart that is also rushing to cover the Last Mile with its own drivers. So, it’s not only grocery to you, it’s food producer, food service, and restaurant to you. Cheese shops, wine makers, and mushroom foragers are crowding into the Last Mile, potentially adding unnecessary carbon dioxide to the atmosphere and costs to your meal.

Some of these food logistics companies are occupying bodegas or other storefronts and use them only as delivery hubs. These “dark stores” are sparsely manned by humans, functioning as microwarehouses for a distribution network where humans, robots, or a combination would be closer to customers to enable shorter Last Miles and faster delivery times. Artificial intelligence will need to augment these microwarehouse designs (see the discussion of warehouses in chapter 3) so that each site will have the smartest, leanest inventory.

Your buying behavior combined with predictive analytics will inform the distributor which food products to stock and when. Soon, demand planning will become a priority as the digitization of the supply chain increases its momentum, fueled by the need to manage transport prices in a competitive global environment. Producers will connect through the supply chain all the way to your place and could plan supply so it could more closely meet demand. This can only happen when the tracking and tracing improvements allow for sharing, standardizing, and digitizing of the entire supply chain.

Some food companies have been working on digitizing their supply chains for decades. Dominos Pizza Company has worked at perfecting Last Mile delivery from its point-of-sale systems to its pizza delivery system. For a pizza company, that means getting every fresh-from-the-oven pizza to the customer who ordered it before it becomes a soggy mess. Owning the logistics service is one way to ensure a better experience for the consumer who expects a hot pizza.

More recently, startup companies have begun taking on the Last Mile challenge themselves. These new food delivery services are like the old-school bike couriers, enhanced by apps that connect customers with drivers and food businesses. DoorDash, one of these services, announced in 2017 that it would use complex delivery algorithms to provide customers with predictive, accurate delivery times. This means accounting for the route but also for the time it takes to make each item. The “Dashers” are part of the new on-demand economy and struggle with many of the same challenges as Uber Eats or Postmates. For the Last Mile Problem, DoorDash wants to use data to be a smarter delivery service, learning from experience so it can inform customers when their pizza will arrive as it struggles with the Last Mile hurdles.4 And to improve the Last Mile logistics, DoorDash began to use both data and a robot to deliver food and predict its arrival, and in 2018 it began a partnership with Walmart to deliver groceries. Other startups such as Favor (acquired by the grocery retail chain HEB in 2018), Instacart, and many specialized delivery services that bring you ice cream, cheese, meat, beer, or all of the above, are all crowding into our driveways.

Other startups are working on the delivery vehicles. Starship Technologies developed autonomous robots that can carry up to forty pounds of food and groceries. New delivery options, a bit smarter than that first wave of food delivery startups, are appearing every week, trying to design a better use of existing logistics networks and knowledge.

The Last Mile is under reconstruction. The scramble for meal kit delivery, delivery meals, and the changing format of grocery stores that will impact where we eat is in the process of renegotiation. Blue Apron and a gaggle of others that are jockeying for space at our front doors haven’t yet found a logistical model that is financially sustainable. The concept of free delivery, championed by Amazon and for a while by UPS, is losing traction as logistics companies realize the complexity and costs of delivering perishable goods to our doorsteps. But hopes are high, as are startup valuations. Blue Apron was the first meal kit delivery company to go public; by mid-2015, the company’s valuation was $3.2 billion, with revenues of $750 million to $1 billion in 2016. The company’s stock was valued at $10 per share when it went public, but in early 2018 it had sunk to $3 per share. Stung by fulfillment problems and hindered by the high cost of customer acquisition, the company struggles to grow. Blue Apron’s story is similar to other Last Mile delivery companies, which may gradually become takeover targets for more established retail food companies. Some food delivery services have died only to reemerge with a new business model or management team; one example is Good Eggs, a food delivery service that seemed to be unsustainable in 2015 only to resuscitate itself with new funding in 2018. The newly organized company promises to eliminate the distribution center model for a direct delivery model that delivers fresh food from local farmers in the San Francisco Bay Area. But this is a tough business with venture capital funding on the decline.

One of the reasons for this coming shakeout is that none of the new entrants in Last Mile meal delivery is profitable. But neither was Amazon until 2003, almost ten years after its founding. Most industry observers forecast that no one format for Last Mile delivery will win out. Instead, we’ll have multiple choices for how food reaches our plates. On Monday, you may want to go out to a restaurant; Tuesday, cook with a meal kit delivery; Wednesday, enjoy a dinner prepared by a chef who comes to your house to cook; and on Thursday, you may want a pizza delivered. Friday you sit down to a meal prepared at an in-store restaurant at your favorite grocery store. And Saturday night, well, that’s a night out on the town.

Last Miles have become a crowded space these days. Seems everyone wants to get food to you faster, delivering it exactly when and where you want it. Not just those pizzas, but everything from meat and cheese to wine and coffee beans. The idea of curated food delivery began decades ago. Ask a baby boomer about Harry & David, a fruit producer that has delivered fruit to customers since the 1920s, and they will recall boxes of impeccable pears that arrived every Christmas holiday. But these days, delivery trucks pile up in our driveway as they bring us our grocery orders via Instacart, pints of ice cream delivered by GrubHub or Favor, or dinner via Doordash. Freshporter, a startup in Ventura, California, focuses on the Last Mile delivery “vessel” that holds prepared foods at your door at a temperature that maintains food safety. Tied together with tracking and tracing technology, this company intends to build a digitized national delivery network for companies that deliver prepared food.

Hundreds of new food delivery options appeared in early 2000, and by 2015, eighty-eight were operating to deliver food we ordered online.5 Investors clambered aboard with millions of dollars of funding only to disappear when the surge abated by 2017. Food delivery companies were confronting the complications of logistics and the risks of disappointing both the sender and the recipient of their deliveries. Restaurants sued delivery companies that failed to deliver on time and to preserve the quality of the food. The costs and risks were piling up, and investors backed off as these new companies began to fail. And that’s where Amazon’s floating DC and drone delivery strategies could come in handy—moving some of that traffic off the road and into the air (see chapter 4).

New Trackers

Imagine the difficulties of tracking and tracing our food through this emerging network of delivery approaches. Some foods travel through existing routes; others through routes devised by the food companies. Waffle House could be a delivery hub, with its twenty-four-hour availability and its connection with truckers who fill up with pancakes. UPS will deliver your curated cheese box to one of its nearest Access Points (places it delivers to regularly, like a nearby drycleaner) to wait until you stop by on your regular visit. Hopefully, you keep your shirts crisp and clean often enough not to jeopardize the quality of the Stilton awaiting your arrival. Still, will there be a seamless tracking system that can hop over and through these various distribution networks?

Tracking food inside a single company is easy compared to the hybrid systems. Aside from companies such as Instacart that service a range of food stores, individual grocery stores are starting their own delivery services. Randalls, a grocery chain in Texas now owned by Safeway, began a grocery delivery service using its own fleet of trucks, while other grocery stores partner with logistics companies such as the Alabama-based Shipt or Texas-based Uship and Favor. These are logistics companies that deliver groceries but are also open to delivering just about anything.

The big food companies and grocery chains such as Walmart, Costco, Sam’s Club, and Target are all working on new formats for food routes. In 2018, Kroger, arguably the largest grocery company in the world in terms of revenue, entered a partnership with Ocado, a UK online grocery company that will provide Kroger with logistics and warehousing expertise. Partnerships such as these are bound to continue as grocery and food service companies acquire and invest in logistics infrastructures in order to remain competitive in the e-commerce food industry.

With the continuing growth of online ordering of food and the demand for faster, fresher food delivery, these giants are working on trials and tests of anything from small-format delivery hubs to drive-through pickups for customers who order online to cooled boxes for in-store pickups. Just how a continuous tracking system will work while maintaining the choices demanded by today’s consumers remains to be seen. Blockchain wants to be the unifying method, but as we will see later in this chapter, it’s only in its infancy and will require more collaboration, standardization, and data sharing than many companies will tolerate.

Then there’s Amazon and Google, both hard at work on delivery options that will roll out in the next few years. Ranging from AVs to distribution networks, these ambitious companies will be moving food closer and closer to us, most likely with minimal assistance from humans. Even though delivery services will bring more and more food directly to our kitchens, we will always have the option to go to physical grocery stores—they will just look a little different. (See chapter 6 for a peek.)

Now they are testing some pretty unusual solutions. While we demand trust in our food companies, Amazon and Walmart want us to deliver trust to them. In late 2017, Walmart announced its in-fridge delivery service.6 Using a smart lock, we can now order groceries online from Walmart, and a delivery carrier will arrive at our house, let himself in, and place our purchases in our fridges, all while we watch remotely on the app.

Amazon and Alexa are also letting themselves into our homes. Through Amazon’s Key, also announced in late 2017, Alexa invited us to let her deliver the food we’d ordered by sending Amazon’s humans into our kitchens. And in early 2018, Amazon paid billions to acquire a smart doorbell company, RING, stepping up its commitment to entering your house. There’s so much going on here: privacy, sharing, the Cloud, smart homes with smart kitchens, IoT. Alexa is already sitting on our shelf waiting for more things to do to justify its (her?) existence in our most intimate spaces. And soon, she may know what we want for dinner tonight and just go ahead have it delivered, at our regular meal time. In 2018, Amazon announced a service that delivers packages directly to your car. It’s not clear if this will work for perishable food that requires cool temperatures. What’s the limit to our willingness to allow strangers access to our homes and cars in return for convenience? Or maybe sending your packages to your car will keep your home off limits, retaining a private sanctuary for the newly open sourced world.

The consequences of this mash-up of technologies operating within our most private spaces are unimaginable right now. While many of us are intrigued, others are wondering how long we’ll allow our personal boundaries to remain intact. But the lure of time savings, greater opportunities to enjoy the freedom of doing what we want when we want without hanging around the house waiting for a delivery . . . these are high-value ideas at the moment. But once we’ve let these services into our lives, not to mention kitchens, where will we find private spaces where we can be unguarded, unanalyzed, and unoptimized? Can we shut these technologies out once we’ve let them in? Will we want to? And why do some people resist the idea of someone entering their home, as if they have some remaining privacy after they’ve been living on Facebook and Google for years?

The Last Mile delivery of our food, including all these distribution options, is all part of the tracking and tracing conundrum. We’ve been pretty clear about the increasing demand for trust and transparency in our food system, and we know how trust plays into a solution. Inviting strangers into our kitchens and tracking their movements could be a daring move on our part. And tracking and tracing truck drivers is only part of the collision between personal privacy and the need to know everything about the things in our lives.

High-Stakes Tracking

But what about truly daring moves to track the movement of food, like those made by food logistics organizations and companies during natural disasters or military conflicts? Our need for transparency can sometimes collide with our national security needs—not to mention the competitive advantage of food companies. Distributing our food throughout the United States or the European Union is one thing. Trying to get armies fed in the burnt-out landscape of Syria or Iraq is another. Technology, infrastructure, and adaptability step in to make all that possible. Tracking and tracing food throughout a natural disaster is the ultimate stress test for food logistics managers. Knowing where those pallets of fresh water are every moment in their journey to a disaster relief site or refugee camp is a matter, truly, of life and death. Maria and Joe Riggio’s pizza parlor’s recovery after Hurricane Sandy in 2012 is an example of how food supply chains can navigate through weather crises

But while distorted and broken landscapes make food distribution tough, what about navigating combat zones to feed troops in the deserts of Iraq? US Colonel Chris Burke was tasked with feeding mobilized troops under attack with a food logistics system that was at risk of being blown up every day. As the head of logistics for the US Air Force in Iraq, Burke had been feeding US troops with the assistance of a logistics contractor. For twenty-five years, he had been in the thick of logistics planning as he exploited the adaptable nature of supply chains. During the 1990s, he provided logistics support for NATO’s Operation Joint Guard. Hunkered down in the Balkans, Burke had juggled the food logistics needs of six European countries, each with its own food preferences. Eight military sites needed food and supplies for an international, transitional community. He remembered the difficulties of getting food across bombed out roads and over mountain passes mined by Serbian rebels, and how difficult it was to meet the prerequisites of the UN and NATO. But in 2010, while preparing for the transition to Operation Iraqi Freedom, he was worried. Colonel Burke supported a military strategy engaged in a withdrawal of troops after seven years of combat.7 Burke led the logistics operations for the US Air Force during Operations Iraqi Freedom and New Dawn from 2008 to 2010. So his cities (dining facilities) were not only on the move under extreme conditions but also required a constant adjustment of supply quantities—and all while his logistics partners changed due to allegations of fraud. And he needed to track every food item as both his position and his customers were on the move.

Burke delivered pasta sauce and oregano (and much more) to hungry soldiers, State Department employees, and security contractors. Since his cities came out of nowhere, rising out of the landscape where no city had existed before, he had to build the food supply chain infrastructure from the ground up. He distributed the equipment needed to prepare the food and store the ingredients and the trucks and forklifts to move the food between ports and sites. He provided fuel to run the trucks, repair them, and tow them off sandy roads in the desert. Even more impressive was his plan for distribution of water in a country of deserts.

Food for the US military had to be brought in from outside Iraq. Every month, Burke’s food logistics team delivered 2,400 truckloads of refrigerated food and 6.4 million pounds of fresh fruit and vegetables for meals eaten in 67 dining facilities (43 of which were mobile) set up in 10 staging areas, feeding 190,000 people every day. Burke was confronted with moving people, cities (dining facilities), and food in a landscape that required ingenious adaptation. His food supply chain pushed adaptability, reliability, trust, and technology to their extreme limits.

Most of the fresh fruit and vegetables—the most perishable and fragile of food items Burke ordered—came from Kuwait. The rest—dry goods and canned food—came from the United States in containers on cargo ships that left Port Elizabeth, New Jersey. This transit took about a month and moved truckloads of Quaker Oats and other American food through the Straits of Gibraltar and the Suez Canal to the ports in Kuwait. No wonder the troops in Iraq didn’t get apples from Washington State.

Most cities gain and lose populations, but not as fast or as precipitously as Burke’s cities. Burke had to address the transition of the US troops out of Iraq. Almost 160,000 troops were in Iraq in 2009 when President Obama announced a troop drawdown that would leave 42,000 in 2010. Burke had to figure out how to predict the amount of food to order while US troops were departing. Even in a city outside a conflict zone, food procurement personnel would be hard pressed to plan for such a rapid exodus of customers from all its dining facilities. Especially if food waste was a concern. How did Burke deal with this? He kept his eye on the supply chain and the troop withdrawal timeline at the same time. While stable cities increasingly adopt food-tracking software for the purpose of food safety, Burke added security as a top priority. For Iraq, the food supply chain traveled through hostile zones, areas where oversight is porous and problematic, to say the least. Docks teemed with workers who found a new container of pasta sauce an auspicious revenue source for their black market compatriots. The US military sites existed at the end of precarious and often damaged supply lines on roads that were open to attacks and disruption. Transparent food supply chains along these paths could bring devastating news, exploiting transparency for the illegal or terrorist activities.

As Burke’s experience illustrates, food traceability and tracking makes it possible to make sure food gets to soldiers and civilians while minimizing loss and waste, both of food and humans. Whether food distributors move through the confused and broken landscapes of battlefields or just suffer traffic delays in congested cities, the design of our food distribution system contends with these roadblocks and still manages to function most of the time. But what happens when the distribution system goes dark, underground, and illegal? Billions of dollars of our food goes missing, is adulterated, or is simply stolen out of warehouses. This breakdown of food routes is a big reason that tracking and tracing food is so important and why investments in technology are offset by the recuperation of tons of food illicitly traded every day. Food tracking and tracing is a question of national security.

In Iraq, food supply lines could be hijacked, bombed, or sabotaged. While the need for trust is one reason to track and trace our food supply, the examples of combat zones and natural disasters point to extreme cases that require knowing where food is throughout the zone. (The issues around food safety discussed in chapter 3 also show how important it is to know where our food is.) If you don’t know where the food has been, you can’t track down supply chain failures or extract the contaminated food out of the supply chain.

In Iraq, Burke relied on his logistics food tracing and tracking service called the “Track and Trace System,” a web-based program that enables clients to track their shipments in real time, watching as the container of pasta sauce leaves New Jersey or the truck convoy travels from Kuwait to Basra. While this sounded good to Burke, he sent an extra tractor and a tow truck along with his food-laden convoys and swathed his team with military security so the food traveled safely. This is when transparency can put your food supply and the entire army at risk. In case his convoys met up with a landmine or missile attack, a tractor could pull some loads out alongside a tow truck. During Burke’s term in Iraq, he saw 33 fatalities, 262 casualties, 247 vehicle losses, 327 cargo losses, and two MIAs. These statistics reveal just how vulnerable food supply chains are when cities are in harm’s way.

A US disaster relief agency, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), emerged from relative obscurity following the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, and especially during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Created by President Jimmy Carter in 1979, FEMA acts as the central food logistics coordinator when natural disasters occur in the United States. After the World Trade Center attack, FEMA became part of the new Department of Homeland Security. Like any other large government agency, the system is often encumbered by its own bureaucracy. For example, FEMA distribution coordinators lock up food donations organized by well-meaning citizens. During Hurricane Sandy in 2012, donated food (including twelve truckloads of bottled water donated by Nestlé) sat in community drop-off sites such as libraries while FEMA struggled to find a way to get it to people in Manhattan.8 More bureaucratic red tape slowed down donations during Hurricane Sandy because New York’s bottle law required all companies donating water to be certified as water distributors. So Anheuser-Busch’s attempt to donate water was temporarily thwarted because it was only certified to distribute beer. Governor Cuomo eventually suspended these regulations, enabling water to reach thirsty survivors.9 But still, in spite of the agency’s claims that it had anticipated the city’s emergency food and water needs, supplies were locked up in warehouses in Georgia even three days after the hurricane passed through New York. Then there was hurricane Maria in 2017, which caused Puerto Rico to lose its food supply chain for months. One reason was the US Jones Act that required the use of American-made ships with American crews to deliver cargo between US ports. There simply weren’t enough of those ships to get food to Puerto Rico fast enough. President Trump temporarily waived the act so that food and other cargo could reach the distraught island, but the Jones Act remains in place, protecting the US shipping industry and harming the distribution of food supplies after disasters. The weight of federal and state administrations often combine with the effects of broken supply chains to create a food logistics system that creates its own disasters.

Mitigating these bureaucratic blockages, many private companies pitch in to supply cities in crisis. During the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Walmart sent truckloads of food to the Gulf Coast, utilizing its logistics network of vehicles, warehouses, and technology to feed survivors that FEMA failed to reach. Able to use plans already developed for crises that would impact business operations, private companies can scale existing response plans and protect assets while delivering food at the same time. Walmart’s distribution center in Brookhaven, Mississippi, could fill trucks with supplies even before Katrina landed on the coast, and truckloads of water arrived before FEMA could get resources mobilized. Since FEMA can only set plans in motion, it often stumbles when organizations on the ground fail to implement plans or stumble around regulations or a lack of ready resources. During disasters, food supply chains operate with a situational combination of private and public services.

For natural disasters in the United States, Sysco partners with the Red Cross to plan food distribution through the Red Cross network. The company sends its mobile kitchens into disaster areas, as it did during Hurricane Katrina. Sysco’s Disaster Plan, issued to its Eastern Maryland Region, outlines what to do when the US Weather Service declares a hurricane watch. The plan contains instructions for ordering extra supplies, but cautions that Sysco won’t make any promises about delivering any food in the forty-eight hours before a hurricane reaches landfall.10 Other collaborations include coordination of international food aid organizations, such as the World Food Programme (WPF) and the American Logistics Aid Network (ALAN).11 Joint exercises among ALAN, WPF, and other food aid organizations use simulations to get faster and lighter. These partnerships will improve as predictive software becomes more sophisticated and grounded in real-time analytics. The evolution of centralized distribution centers into a landscape of networked microwarehouses will also make feeding disaster areas more adaptive and less wasteful.

These emergency plans sometimes include a strategy called “leaning in,” which increases delivery speed while lowering negative impacts upon the environment, but no amount of leaning can compensate for customers who want to lean in, themselves, by hoarding supplies at home. When I was living in Boston in 2010, a ruptured pipe connecting the water supply to the city precipitated a run on bottled water, causing stores to run out. Water, though not always considered food by many of us, is an essential ingredient for the preparation of food. In Boston that spring, some cafes and restaurants couldn’t sell food because they had no water, and stores had not anticipated the impact of a multi-day water crisis. It’s in these unpredictable situations that the adaptable nature of food supply chains breaks down. Risk-taking software and hindsight both have their limits. Before Hurricane Katrina, FEMA began stockpiling meals in the predicted path of the storm, in anticipation of a surge in demand. A system of tracking and tracing food in the supply chain along with predictive analytics could improve the provision of food to areas that experience these natural disasters.

But despite all good intentions, humanitarian food aid organizations around the world struggle to deliver to these sites. Leakage throughout the system, mishandling of food, lack of security, and spoilage continue. Corruption, bureaucracy, and byzantine regulations have made food aid almost its own worst enemy. Evidently, competing interests either block or spur developments that would improve transparency within our food system.

Pirates and Fraudsters

Food disappears from the global food supply chain every day. These leaks include piracy, theft, black markets, and adulteration of food products. Piracy had existed as long as ships had carried valuable cargo, and it didn’t end with the Barbary Pirates. Modern pirates operating off the coast of Somalia threatened shipping lanes and stalled cargo between 2008 and 2012. Although the number of piracy attacks began to decrease in 2010, they continue to cause dangerous friction in the supply chain. Walnuts, olive oil, honey, and other high value food falls into the hands of thieves all across the globe. Sometimes these ingredients are just stolen and sold on the black market; in other cases, they are adulterated and sold as the real thing. Improvements in tracking and tracing our food can help limit the amount of food diverted from our plates. On the other hand, too much transparency, or insecure systems for tracking food, will only enable offenders to be one step ahead of the law.

Food fraud, piracy, smuggling, adulteration, and other illicit activities impact the global food supply chain by siphoning off billions of dollars of food. Though, as we’ll see later in the chapter, while compromises to our food system are often accidental, not all food contamination is. The adulteration of food was common in history as enterprising companies attempted to cheat customers by adding contaminants to extend quantities or enhance appearances. Adding chalk to milk in Victorian England is just one example. Adding rice syrup to honey in China is another, more contemporary example. Opportunities for sophisticated tracking and tracing technology abound in this environment.

In March 2016, Europol (the European Union’s law enforcement agency), in cooperation with Interpol, announced a historic seizure of “fake” food, also called “adulterated” or “fraudulent” food. The two organizations seized more than ten thousand tons of fraudulent food and a million liters of fraudulent drink from fifty-seven countries.12 In 2012, US Customs officials discovered counterfeit ketchup in a New Jersey warehouse. The counterfeiters bought regular Heinz ketchup and repacked it in bottles with labels for the premium Heinz ketchup hoping to benefit from the price difference between the regular and higher-priced condiments.

By now, food safety laws and testing methods can usually detect when our milk contains chalk. But like doping in the sports world, as the methods for detecting contaminants have become available, the adulterers have found other contaminants that escape the testing methods. Transparency only allows the signaling of preventative measures so that offenders can develop workarounds.

Food fraud today continues to grow, both because the organizations conducting illegal food trade are more sophisticated and because the value and amount of international food trade has increased. The March 2016 heist included nine tons of fertilizer-contaminated sugar found in Egypt. Other captured food included monkey meat, caterpillars, and fake whisky and wine, along with items unfit for human consumption and banned for use in food.

In December 2015, the Italian police found seven thousand tons of fake olive oil.13 Fraud and contamination of olive oils has increasingly been a problem since the Mediterranean Diet became popular. Legitimate manufacturers needed a way to verify that their oil was the real thing, so in Tuscany, Italy, oil producers began to use NFC RFID sensors embedded in the bottle labels.

Olive oil isn’t the only target of fraud by insiders trying to save a buck, or outsiders trying to make one. In 2013, British newspapers horrified beef-loving readers with the news that Irish horsemeat had found its way into the beef supply chain late in 2012. Meat inspectors discovered the horsemeat in frozen hamburgers that supplied supermarkets such as Tesco and Aldi. Using DNA samples, food inspectors were able to track the horsemeat back through the supply chain to food processing companies in France that made food products such as lasagna using the mislabeled meat. Tracking the meat revealed just how complex the food supply chain can be. Some of it was slaughtered in Romania and then sold through several food traders in the Netherlands and Cyprus before ever reaching the French food manufacturers.14 The UK investigated the National Food Crime Unit and the Food Crime Intelligence Network among a collection of response and protection measures.

The US Food Protection and Defense Institute (FPDI), part of the Homeland Security Center of Excellence, has a charming term for food fraud: Economically Motivated Adulteration (EMA).15 The Institute offers the food industry a virtual tool for simulating instances of food fraud to determine the most effective defense tactics.

According to FPDI, about 7 percent of the food commerce in the United States contains fraudulent ingredients.16 It uses web-based tools to monitor and track food safety throughout the United States by assessing risks, cyber security, traceability, detection tools, and response methods. In 2015, the US Pharmacopeial Convention (USP), an international group of members that monitors the integrity of food and drugs, declared illegal food traffic was growing at an annual rate of 60 percent, and with the growing complexity and volume of food sent through the global food supply chain, the opportunities for food fraud only increase.17 And it means big bucks for those who succeed in sending adulterated or fake food through our global food supply chain.

Sometimes illegal supply chains develop to avoid trade sanctions, anti-dumping regulations, or laws against certain drugs or ingredients, such as some antibiotics. These issues played into the illegal shipments of Chinese honey in 2014, when a Chinese businessman living in Texas smuggled several tons of honey through Houston.18 It wasn’t the first time China had been caught committing food fraud. In 2008, contaminated powdered milk produced in China caused the death of six babies. Inadequate and poorly administered food safety laws have created mistrust of Chinese food, and even now the repercussions are still felt in the global powdered milk supply chain. Foreign companies stepped in to supply the Chinese market, and many are still the main suppliers to China. While not exactly food fraud, the milk scandal exemplifies dishonest representation of food quality, which in most countries is unlawful.19 And it impacts other producers in the global food supply chain. When milk adulteration appeared in China, China bought more milk from the United States and Australia, driving up demand for dairy exports in both those countries.

Most of us are unaware that we may be eating flounder instead of halibut, but the seafood supply chain has made progress identifying and tracking food. Oceana, a nonprofit organization founded in 2011 to protect the world’s oceans, conducted several studies about mislabeling seafood. In its 2013–2014 report about salmon, Oceana revealed that 43 percent of the salmon sold around the world was mislabeled.20 In most cases, salmon was labeled as wild rather than farmed. And a 2012 study by researchers at UCLA and Loyola Marymount University found that 47 percent of the sushi in twenty-six sushi restaurants in Los Angeles was mislabeled.21 While some of these mistakes could be simply mistakes, some are intentional due to significant cost differences between fish species. In 2016, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) issued regulations to try to track down and eliminate mislabeling of imported seafood.

Needless to say, illegal food shipments through hidden supply chains are big business. This means tracking and tracing food has become even more complicated as a result of the need for product verification. Both the organic and non-GMO supply chains require trackable, verifiable data to certify that foods are what they say they are. Food safety inspectors aren’t on the front line for these illicit dealings—the FBI, CIA, and international intelligence agencies such as Interpol are on the job.

Clear Labs, a startup founded in 2013 and located in Silicon Valley, uses DNA profiling to detect fraudulent seafood identification.22 Cofounder Mahni Gorashi and his team use next-gen DNA testing along with a database food index to analyze food in the supply chain. Its product can determine the identity of food ingredients at the molecular level, which is critical from an economic point of view, but also from a public health perspective. Detecting gluten or other allergens could help mitigate risk for food products. Other scientists and startups are exploring this area with innovations that will make DNA identification of our food less costly and more timely.

The concern about food fraud crosses over into concerns about food safety, since any food that is not accurately identified and in conformance with safety standards could contain toxins or other ingredients harmful to human health. In the case of the British horsemeat incident, sometimes referred to as “Horsegate,” the government was especially keen to reestablish public trust in the food system. The report pointed out that the difficulties around financial sustainability motivate small food businesses to cut corners, sometimes using below-standard ingredients or illegal, lower-cost suppliers.23 The investigation also pointed out that more complicated supply chains are more prone to fraud, since tracking illegal ingredients through complicated paths is often nearly impossible. The potential for preventing food fraud is one argument for local food production that requires fewer intermediate steps before reaching consumers. This may make sense except for the fact that a single producer could arguably be the source for adulteration.

Even the legal food supply chain has its own challenges for tracking and tracing nonconforming food. Coexistence of food production systems for organic, non-GMO ingredients creates an even more urgent requirement for supply chain monitoring, tracking, and tracing. Producers need to certify that their foods are what they say they are on labels and in marketing campaigns, as cross-contamination risks legal action and penalties by enforcement bodies. Several systems help food suppliers comply with these safety regulations and standards. One such company, Safety Chain, manages vendors. When the lettuce supplier sells its lettuce to Wendy’s, Wendy’s uses a software platform like Safety Chain to crosscheck lettuce quality with produce safety standards and log compliance. These systems check to see whether food meets safety and quality standards set both by the government and private industry. Wendy’s also wants to know that those burgers are all the right size for its buns.

Smarter Trackers

Security issues aside, tracking and tracing is critical to the actual sourcing of food products. Upscale restaurants strive to find the latest, freshest ingredients for an ever-more sophisticated consumer, but finding those costly ingredients and making sure they arrive fresh requires the latest tracking technology. In 2009, Wired Magazine ran a story about Chef Paul Bartolotta, who ran a Ristorante di Mare in Las Vegas until 2015.24 He was known for his ability to get fresh seafood from the Mediterranean to Las Vegas, “pier to platter,” in less than 48 hours. Fishermen and buyers in Italy used Skype to show Bartolotta prospective catches, and after Bartolotta decided to purchase fish out of one of those catches, the buyer made sure one fish in each container carried a microchip. On the next flight out of Milan, the chips recorded internal temperatures every twenty minutes throughout the journey to Las Vegas. These tracking sensors are also found in more containers, tracking temperatures and other events. Tracking information is seen by today’s consumers as value added to their food products. They are willing to pay more for a detailed description of their meal from farm to plate. This trend will continue until the information becomes standard fare for all our food. Recent research indicates that tracking information is valued more than speed when it comes to delivering food. A consumer would rather wait an extra hour or day if it means food arrived with a more complete record of its travels.

Consider Glanbia, a small nutritional food company in Ireland.25 Many of its products use milk collected from Irish dairies, and it optimizes its truck fleet with sensors at strategic points along its supply chain. The sensors on the trucks gather data about both the quantity and quality of the milk they transport. The quality of the milk determines where the truck will deliver its shipment. For example, if the milk contains more cream, the truck will deliver the cream-laden milk to Glanbia’s cream processing facility.26 If the milk sensor determines a load has less cream than is desirable for cream production, the data will instruct the driver to go to the facility that removes whey from the milk to produce nutritional supplements. GEA Food Solutions, a large food processing equipment manufacturer in the Netherlands, makes the sensors Glanbia uses to gather the milk data.27

Driscoll’s, a multi-billion-dollar berry company located in California, uses RFID chips to monitor berry shipments in real time. Perishable fruit is delicate, so devices such as those made by Sendum track “shock events” and vibrations.28 Each bump and vibration can break down the fruit, causing significant loss of shelf life. Studies of shipments from Thailand explain how these vibration sensors, used in both rail and truck transport, provide valuable data that shippers can use to improve their produce logistics.29 If they find that trucks incur intense vibration at the rear of the trailer, shippers can locate the problems and determine the necessary repairs.

Driscoll’s is making progress toward the integration of multiple technologies to enhance its tracking system, including artificial intelligence and machine learning. We see plastic containers of berries in stores around the world that are distributed through Driscoll’s facilities in California and Florida. (When the seasons change, Driscoll’s can grow the berries in climate-compatible fields somewhere in the world so that consumers can buy berries at any time of the year—another example of how adaptability and reliability keep the supply chain moving.)

All the data that Driscoll’s accumulates goes into a Data Lake, a database with a flat architecture (not hierarchical like most of the databases we commoners use) that stores raw data. To enhance berry tracking, it uses the Lake to contain data collected from its trucks that use geolocation software. Companies such as Driscoll’s use the tracking technology to certify the integrity of supply chains not only for GMO foods but also for fair trade and organic validation.

Other food companies are moving toward smarter packaging that enables more detailed tracking and tracing of the movements of products throughout the supply chain. Avery Dennison developed a sensor for the pharmaceutical industry that goes on the inside or outside of a package. In the case of Desert Farms, a California company that ships camels’ milk for Amish producers, the sensors go both inside and out, logging the temperature of the milk and the environment.30 Labels, sensors, scanners, and other technologies are all coming together to make our food’s routes knowable and transparent.

Fourkites has a real-time temperature tracker that tracks the interior temperatures of shipping containers and other cargo containers. Companies such as Smithfield Meat can track and certify temperatures in real time so they can be more responsive should there be any food safety related incidents. Trackers have other advantages, too. Recipients of food deliveries often have time periods during which their loading docks are open, warehouse space is available, and staff is on hand to receive shipments. These scheduling windows offer a shipper the opportunity to deliver during times when they can avoid waits at the loading dock. With a tracker that can project an estimated time of arrival (ETA), both the shipper and the receiver can synchronize deliveries within the best timeframe. Much like ride-sharing apps these days, this projected ETA, when perfected, could do much to limit the time reefer trucks hang out around the corner waiting for a spot at the loading dock.

Whether for our own need for trust, optimization of the supply chain, or for the purpose of locating adulterated or unsafe food, tracing food back through the supply chain makes it possible to recall food to ensure that public health isn’t threatened and to identify where the supply chain broke down. Technology for recalls has come a long way. When London experienced a series of cholera outbreaks during the 1800s, the first response was to blame the fetid city air, until a physician named John Snow located a contaminated water pump. Back then, it was difficult to detect fraud or contamination in food—and nearly impossible to remove the compromised ingredients from the supply chain. The science of food testing and the technology for detecting contamination was not available until the twentieth century.

Backtracking Food

Food safety becomes even more challenging and critical under crisis conditions because time is of the essence when death is in the pot. Just ask Chipotle or Blue Bell Ice Cream about food tracking, and we’ll hear about the stressful moments spent finding and recalling contaminated products. When Blue Bell Ice Cream got word that the ice cream in one of their Oklahoma facilities was contaminated with listeria, the company went “one-up-one-back,” meaning they investigated suppliers of ice cream ingredients one step before they arrived at the ice cream plant and one step after.31 This approach provides a systematic way for companies to search through their supply chains for the source of an outbreak or contamination. In Blue Bell’s case, they found evidence of possible contamination at the plant that provided cookie dough for their cookie dough ice cream. This contamination was not inconsequential; three people died as a result of eating the adulterated ice cream. These events do more to erode the trust consumers have for food and food companies and, as we’ve noted, it’s that trustworthiness that underlies the smooth operation of the food supply chain. Trust is fragile, to say the least.

In Chipotle’s case, seventeen restaurants in eight states reported that customers were hospitalized with Shiga toxin-producing E. coli infections. No one food ingredient was found to have caused the outbreak, which goes to show how much more complicated food safety is for companies that use a large number of suppliers and ingredients for a single dish. Like other restaurants, many of Chipotle’s menu items include multiple ingredients that are combined in a single serving, so tracking down the reason your burrito made you sick isn’t such an easy task.

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) described the process for tracking down the problem, including a new technique that uses DNA to fingerprint the E. coli in the victims, enabling investigators to trace the contaminant throughout Chipotle’s system.32 PulseNet, a global network of labs, tells the CDC where a particular strain of E. coli may travel, enabling it to relate a source of contamination to a group of individuals.33 The CDC says that the network tracks about 280 clusters of food-borne illnesses, areas of a high incidence of a disease outbreak, every year.34

Whole Genome Sequencing (WGS) is also a tool for identifying the exact strain drifting through the food system. We’ll see more and more digital identification technology in our food supply chain applied for just this purpose, identifying the molecular nature of food as it travels within the supply chain. Facial recognition technology will also make identification and validation of perishable food and ingredients possible as they move through the supply chain. Robots and scanners that use facial recognition, blockchain, and sensors will virtually replace human inspectors and instead rely on artificial intelligence and Big Data.

Not only will the ingredients be checked for safety and integrity, the ethical labor practices of a food supplier can be certified through digital verification of compliance with ethical sourcing standards for the food supply chain. This goes beyond just verifying the additives supplied during the processing stage and the information provided on food labels. This level of verification goes to the heart of consumers’ trust issues when it comes to “big food.”

What happens to all that food when it is recalled due to noncompliance or a breakout of a food-borne illness? Before the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), food recalls were voluntary, but now the US government requires them. Some of the recalled food goes into landfills, some goes into animal food, and some can be cooked and repurposed. Yes, you read that right. The contaminated food can go right back into the chain for human consumption, though the FDA does require that it be pasteurized or cooked first.35 It’s also not clear whether all of the recalled products are recovered. What happens to the rest?

The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) states that companies can cook the recovered food, such as meat, to create a secondary supply that could be combined with other ingredients and sold to the public. This practice isn’t illegal—it’s what the US regulations allow. Other countries, both developed and underdeveloped, have their own standards, and while many are less stringent in some ways than the EU or US standards, they are continually improving food safety practices in order to meet requirements for export to the developed countries.36

Recalls occur outside the United States as well, since food-borne illnesses are a problem worldwide. The European Commission has a Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF), established in 1979, that provides all members quick access to alerts, notifications, and disposal status regarding unsafe food within the European Union.37 In 2015, Japan caught contaminated Gorgonzola cheese imported from Italy and reported it to RASFF so other countries that may have received the cheese could be notified.

To mitigate the risk of contamination and recall as food moves across borders in the United States, APHIS handles safety and security by ruling the international movement of food.38 If the supply chain moves food across state or national boundaries, APHIS dictates how it’s done. If a shipper sends oranges from Seville, Spain, that shipper must comply with specific APHIS regulations. Those oranges may be denied entry if APHIS has received information about boycotts or diseases and pests that affect them. Once a ship lands a container, APHIS inspectors can determine whether the shipment requires fumigation and direct a shipper to one of its approved services before the fruit can be stored in the United States.

Beyond just the cost of pulling products off the shelf, additional expenses accrue, such as creating a public relations campaign to offset the negative publicity and incurring revenue loss. A company may find its consumers aren’t as forgiving as Blue Bell’s fans. When Blue Bell recalled its ice cream in 2015, customers were concerned, but the real fans were anxious for the ice cream to reappear on the shelves. The empty locations on store shelves where their beloved ice cream had once lived were only a sad reminder that their favorite sweet treat would be on a hiatus until it sorted things out back at the factory. It did, in late 2015, and consumers rejoiced.

But in other cases, usually with larger companies, consumers aren’t so patient and are demanding greater transparency. Brand contamination is a consequence of food contamination. The reputation of a company can, as in Chipotle’s case, be held in question as outbreaks are investigated. Consider the contaminated spinach in 2006 from Earthbound Farm, with its reputation for healthy, organic produce. As it turned out, it wasn’t the company’s spinach exactly that was the culprit; it was an Angus beef rancher’s contaminated field that caused the problem when Earthbound contracted with the rancher to grow spinach.39 But still, the responsibility and reputational damage landed squarely on Earthbound’s shoulders. And as a result of the public outcry over the use of what the media called “pink slime” to process meat, one meat processor sued a media outlet, ABC, for damages. The company, Beef Products, Inc. (BPI) in South Dakota, closed three of its four processing units as a result of the negative publicity; ABC and BPI settled the lawsuit in 2017.40

Food companies, processors, packaging companies, and distributors—and just about everyone in the food supply chain—take food safety more seriously than ever now that the slightest oversight can lead to litigation and brand besmirching. Brian Weale from the food service company Sysco relates how diligent his company is about tracking and reporting food safety problems. When a food safety issue is reported anywhere in the supply chain, the information travels throughout the chain that handles that item. Recorded phone calls go to anyone who received the product; if the buyer doesn’t listen to the entire phone message, the recall system will continually redial the buyer until he or she has heard all the information related to the recall. No hang-ups, please.

Blockchain: The New Superpower?

Finding food in the supply chain for the purpose of recalls is about to become easier, thanks to the increased interest in blockchain technology. You may remember the Chinese company using blockchain to track its chickens. Thousands of years ago, the Chinese used other methods of tracking food shipments: written ledgers and imprints on clay amphorae, for example. By the 1700s, shippers accounted for cargo with ledgers for signing goods they handled in and out. Shipping companies gathered up the ledgers to track goods as they passed through many hands, down what we call the “chain of custody,” which ensured each handler was held accountable for the condition of the goods during the period they were in his possession. Similar to the bills of lading for ships, a ledger for tracking food-related shipments entailed a simple note that logged the time in and the time out of the facilities of anyone that handled a shipment. Today the ledger can take the form of a blockchain, a database that contains a time-stamped log of each transaction as it moves between peers, in real time.

The reason blockchains are of interest in the food supply chain is the claim that the database is secure. Once an item passes through the hands of each peer on the network, the information about the shipment, including the timing of the transaction, cannot be easily altered. Complex algorithms store the information and the network remembers each transaction. A bushel of apples moving from the producer to your grocery store leaves a series of time-stamped data records that accumulate through the network, allowing anyone in the system to check on the status of a shipment independently.

Blockchains also solve the food industry’s custody issue. When the blockchain digitally offers an item to a peer and the peer accepts the offer, an implied transference of property occurs throughout the network as that bushel of apples moves toward the customer. Instead of an apple producer selling apples to a grocery distributor through a bank transaction, the producer’s financial transaction—actually delivering the title to the apples—happens directly with the distributor.

In essence, you have a distributed ledger, allowing transparency to all within the system. In reality, you have the old bill of lading in a digital form in a common ledger. The information contained in that one document exists in many computers in the network along the way. So every time a bushel of apples moves through its supply chain, information about its steps are recorded, including who moved it, when, why, and what resulted from the movement. The data form blocks that leave unique “fingerprints” along the chain. Any attempt to change that fingerprint travels throughout the entire chain, alerting everyone that the integrity of the chain was compromised. If someone steals an apple, the blockchain will know where and when it disappeared. 

There are many applications for blockchain within the food system: fraud prevention, food safety, recall tracking, and identification of illegal food production such as the use of slave labor or environmentally unsustainable practices.41 Food safety is the key driver, since successful tracking to identify and eliminate food contamination saves lives.

Research and development on blockchains for supply chains is underway in both the food industry and academia. In October 2016, three big players in the food supply chain announced a collaboration that will add to the momentum for the food supply chain to engage with blockchain technology. IBM with its Big Data and artificial intelligence centers, Tsinghua University (the Chinese center for development of blockchain technology), and Walmart with its deep knowledge of the grocery business are working to enable transparency through blockchain tracking on a global scale. Even before these big three came together, the Co-operative Group in the UK announced its blockchain-based program, Provenance, which creates a record of transactions as food moves from producers to its 3,500 stores in Britain.

Blockchains could revolutionize far more than just the movement of food. IBM has suggested that blockchains could record crop data, climate conditions, and the moisture content of food. This would allow warehouse operators to plan for storage requirements in advance of grain delivery, for example. Of course, all the new cloud-based technology and mobile applications make tracing and tracking more effective and, eventually, more cost-effective. But success with blockchain technology will depend upon the entire food supply chain industry to agree to standards that would create an industry platform. Who will control the platform and create the standards?

Not to herd more chickens into this chapter, but they seem to be everybody’s use test case. In early 2018, a new brand developed in partnership with Future Market. Block Bird is a chicken product with an interactive e-ink package that communicates the entire life cycle of the specific chicken in a package. The combined technologies of smart packaging and blockchain make this possible. We can now buy a Block Bird and know how our bird was raised, what it ate, and how it was handled throughout its life before its moment of fricassee. This is possible only with the inclusion of sensors and management of Big Data all along the way, from the chicken yard to your kitchen. Replacing handwritten notes, incompatible databases, and divergent practices, this idea of a fully traceable supply chain is the hope of those who want transparent, trustworthy food. These products are only in their early stages, and they still have major barriers to overcome before we have a flock of products to choose from. But it seems the chickens are leading the way.

But wait. Are all these tracking and tracing technologies a good thing? While the technology gathers data about the things moving in the Internet of Food, it also captures data about us, the consumers. Sure, we want to know where our food comes from and how it gets to us, but that data drags us along with it. While following cargo throughout a supply chain isn’t new, the transparency we’re about to have will be. Innovations like temperature trackers and data loggers for food shipments have been around for decades, and they are getting cheaper and capable of operating on mobile devices. And some observers note that even a blockchain database could be hacked or data forged.

Despite the clear advantages of tracking and tracing technologies like these, they’re not universally loved. Truck drivers, for example, have not been eager to embrace GPS trackers, also called electronic logging devices (ELDs) by the trucking industry, for their trucks. Both independent and unionized drivers argue that the use of such trackers is an invasion of privacy and too costly to implement. In June 2017, the Supreme Court refused to consider an appeal against the ruling that required the use of such trackers. But the argument may be moot; we may be watching the transition to driverless trucks as supply chain integration progresses.

Also resistant to these innovations are the many small farms that eschew the use of any technology that supplants the wisdom and experience of farmers. Farmers, particularly American farmers, come from a tradition of independence and frontier-based values. Although cooperatives have been commonplace, total integration and collaboration on a large scale isn’t taken for granted. In Europe, where the distances are shorter and the economic and political philosophies are more cooperative, integration of data systems and agreement on practices is more easily digested.

And on a personal level, those tags we talked about don’t just measure temperature and vibrations. All that data goes to the Cloud, where it hangs around until tapped by the company using the system. The data can do more than just track a strawberry’s progress from the field to your shortcake. It can add points to your consumer loyalty program, signal inventory status, register products, and perhaps even send recipe information from the company’s test kitchen to you, the consumer, who is now linked to the kitchen through the product sensor. So the digital label becomes the umbilical cord tying customers to producers and distributors. Once you pick up that apple and put it in your grocery cart, there’s no telling what that label may be communicating to the apple marketing department.

One also wonders about the impact of all this transparency and data sharing upon the food industry. How will they manage innovation, research, and development for technologies that they consider intellectual property? Will they ever become unsiloed? Remember that researchers at academic institutions such as MIT want agricultural data to be in an open system, not proprietary to those companies that manufacture farm equipment. Will transparency limit the risks companies are willing to take along the road to improving the trust factor? In today’s cultural climate of collaboration, equity, and inclusion, it will be increasingly difficult for food and agricultural companies to maintain a closed system and proprietary data standards. On the other hand, the more open our food system becomes and the more data collected within the supply system that is visible, the more vulnerable our global food system may be to hackers, adulterers, and anyone else who wants to stall or bypass our food supply chain.

Millennials and Gen Zers seem to be willing to trade privacy for transparency and convenience. But that could change as more and more people watch episodes of Black Mirror or find their bank accounts depleted. We haven’t reached that point yet, but we’re heading in the direction of open access to our genomes, buying habits, driving habits, and eating habits.

Soon enough, companies that sell us our food will use our personal health data to push food that our insurance companies and employers want us to eat. Restaurants will not only be able to tell you all about Colin the chicken, but also how Colin fits your particular taste preferences and health data. Maybe even your health data as of the moment you stepped into the restaurant. Are we giving up too much privacy in exchange for a transparent, trusted food system? Probably not, but be prepared for a pushback, because there always is one.

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