According to the USDA, the amount of food recalled nationally increased by 37 million pounds between 2015 and 2016.  Why the uptick? I believe this reflects increased diligence on the part of food manufacturers to protect both consumers and their valuable food brands. Nevertheless, across the industry, the focus on avoiding or limiting recalls is intense. Beyond the direct cost, a recall due to food safety or quality issues can do significant damage to a manufacturer’s brand, and ultimately, its performance in the marketplace.                                                            

Producers of refrigerated and frozen foods rose to the challenge with an array of sophisticated techniques to mitigate risk, including DNA analysis, to detect elements that could impact food safety. Manufacturers generally have good controls within their own processes. What they don’t have is granular, end-to-end monitoring of their extended supply chain—from upstream raw materials suppliers through the entire production and packaging process to the distribution network. That’s where the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) can have a transformative impact.

Intelligent, end-to-end monitoring

Leveraging IIoT sensor technologies and real-time data analytics enables food manufacturers to track and trace incoming ingredients with precision, potentially down to the specific row in the field where a vegetable was grown or the feedlot enclosure where a side of beef came from. Likewise, IIoT technologies make it possible to monitor the finished product at every step on the route from the plant to the consumer, in real time. Knowing that a product is experiencing a temperature excursion in real time provides the ability to intervene before it leads to a food safety issue or spoiled product.

Of course, this end-to-end, real-time visibility and traceability requires a whole new level of data sharing between food manufacturers and their suppliers and distributors. This requires secure, cloud-based systems that collect data from across the supply chain and make it available for centralized data analytics engines to trace products at every point and spot potential issues in real time.

For example, imagine a scenario where a farm sprayed a particular herbicide on its peas to control weed growth. However, the application of the herbicide is not uniform. Later, in the production process, peas with higher levels of the herbicide interact with other processing steps that cause a potential safety issue. End-to-end, IIoT-based sensor and analytics systems make it possible to identify and understand the problem—the batch of peas with higher levels of herbicide as well as the process interaction—quickly and accurately. The problem can be rapidly addressed, limiting product waste and providing new insight to avoid a repeat.

Key IIoT considerations

The potential for IIoT sensor and analytics technologies to mitigate the risk of recalls is undeniable. Yet many food manufacturers are taking a cautious approach to IIoT investments. In an industry with thin margins and intense competition, how can manufacturers be sure these investments pay off?

1. Prioritize existing and evolving critical control points.

IIoT-based monitoring of the entire production process would be cost-prohibitive for most food manufacturers. Instead, target the areas most critical to food safety and quality, starting with Hazards Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP). Gathering and analyzing data from the most critical supply, manufacturing and distribution points in real time will provide the greatest return in terms of mitigating the risk of recalls, spotlighting potential issues before they become costly problems. As these HACCP processes continually improve over time, your IIoT “footprint” can expand to encompass the evolving critical points along with less critical processes to improve efficiency and generate insights to make the business more competitive.

2. Use the IIoT to ensure compliance.

Every food manufacturer understands the impact of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), increasing their obligation to prevent threats to the food supply. Implementing IIoT technologies can significantly enhance their ability to meet this challenge. For example, moving to automated, in-line quality analysis makes test results immediately available to centralized quality systems via the IIoT. Real-time chemical and spectroscopic analysis data allows manufacturers to identify potential problems early in production and respond proactively rather than reactively, after the product has already been produced and shipped. This dramatically reduces the risk of a recall, potential fines and damage to the brand. There are many potential applications of IIoT technology for compliance throughout the supply chain, such as tracking the time a temperature-sensitive product is in transit between the refrigerated truck and the refrigerated warehouse or store, a critical point for damaging temperature excursions.

The presence of such intelligent IIoT technologies also generates data that demonstrates to regulators that the manufacturer is monitoring food quality and safety, a key compliance requirement.

3. Minimize the risk of data loss.

Data is the life blood of the IIoT. Protecting that data, from the systems gathering data throughout the supply chain to in-flight data in the cloud to permanent data repositories, is essential. That means investing in high-availability, fault-tolerant systems that prevent data loss and ensure continuous operation of critical production and monitoring equipment. Moreover, high availability will increase faith in these systems. If you are “hedging your bets” by continuing to rely on clipboards and other legacy paper-based approaches as a backup, it defeats the whole purpose of the IIoT.

The IIoT journey

Implementing IIoT is a journey, not a destination. Most manufacturers will start with limited implementations that target key quality control points. As they recognize the value generated by intelligent tracking, tracing and analysis of the supply chain and production process, they can extend their IIoT infrastructure into new areas. Reducing the risk of recalls is obviously a high priority worthy of investment. But, the IIoT also enables significant improvements that impact other areas of the business—from optimizing production efficiencies to responding in real time to product diversion and theft in transit, to analyzing consumer preferences faster to improve business agility.

Beginning with a thorough assessment of your entire supply and demand chain and production process to identify the most critical control points is a great first step.