Can Tech Protect Food from Terror Attacks?

By Baselinemag  |  Posted 2002-03-15

American consumers may always have harbored a low-level worry that the produce they buy will be less than fresh, or the raw meat tainted with some naturally occurring bacteria. But now, in a world that suggests threats from terrorists almost anywhere, the food industry appears particularly vulnerable.

Yet, only now are the systems being put in place to track what happens to food products as they make their way to store shelves.

Packaged-goods companies "don't have the processes today that ensure trackability—other than those in pharmaceuticals, and that is only because of FDA (Food and Drug Administration) requirements," says Roddy Martin, service director for life sciences with AMR Research in Boston.

In the not-so-distant future, though, a smart, microchip-bearing label could provide the location of the farm where your food originated, the date it was processed, the route it took to reach your corner supermarket, and how long—down to the minute—it has been sitting on the shelf. Traceability is moving quickly from a nicety to a requirement, and one that the government and food companies are counting on to shore up "end-to-end" food safety.

It won't be easy. Companies selling prewrapped consumer goods tend to operate many separate information systems. Quality-management systems don't talk to supply-management systems. Manufacturing systems don't talk to materials management systems. Each system tends to have its own technology chieftain. There is no executive-level "chief product officer" overseeing the entire chain, Martin notes.

While monitoring every possible step from field to table seems daunting, corporations and food-industry associations are already applying information technologies to the problem. There are projects ranging from the lofty creation of new business-to-business, technology-based food-industry coalitions, to the seemingly mundane, like developing smarter labels for pre-packaged spinach.

Pressure to increase food security is coming from all sides. President Bush's fiscal 2003 federal budget earmarked $146 million in new spending to protect the U.S. food system from attack, with allocations for upgrading the federal Department of Agriculture (USDA) facilities and operational security, more research on security techniques and technologies, and better monitoring and inspection programs.

Federal and quasi-federal oversight agencies are cropping up. In mid-February, for example, the Food Marketing Institute (FMI), a supermarket industry umbrella organization, and the National Infrastructure Protection Center (NIPC), established to serve as a government focal point in assessing threats to the country's infrastructure, banded together to create the Food Industry Information Sharing and Analysis Center (ISAC). This new ISAC will provide a unified site for the food industry to report, monitor, and ultimately reduce its vulnerability to threats or attacks.

"The thought is that the U.S. government will mandate more tracking and tracing of data, so as to stave off—or possibly prepare for—an attack on the food supply," says Jim Wilson, e-commerce consultant with Bayer Corp.'s U.S. agriculture division, and executive director of the Kansas City, Mo.-based AgXML grain and oilseed e-commerce consortium. "But it's one thing to track and trace a boxcar of food. It's something else to try to track a can full of corn—or a single grain of corn."

The food supply chain is comprised of inputs and outputs, explains Wilson. In order to secure the food supply fully, both must be monitored. That includes seed, crop protection products and fertilizer, as well as the resulting food products consumed by the population. In addition, interim manufacturing, processing, and distribution steps also need to be secure.

Links in the Food Supply Chain

First, businesses are working to secure pieces of the food supply chain.

Food, electronics, and healthcare conglomerate DuPont is developing diagnostic tools to protect the food supply and track bacteria and other biological agents. Among these technologies are DuPont Qualicon, a microbe testing system, and Teijin, a Mylar polyester film for tamper-resistant and tamper-evident packaging.

Farm-equipment manufacturer John Deere recently introduced CropTracer, a crop identity-tracing system that it developed together with crop-monitoring firm VantagePoint Network and technology developer CropVerifeye LLC. The system blends John Deere's field data collection technologies, VantagePoint's data warehousing and CropVerifeye's certification and field-auditing services.

Even the lowly bar code is getting a facelift, in the name of improving end-to-end food traceability.

"Today, your bar code will tell you that you have a package of ground meat and how much it costs," says Greg Rowe, director of food and beverage for the Uniform Code Council (UCC), the product-identification standards body. "An expanded bar code would let you see a brand name; encode a batch or serial number; and trace that number back a level in the supply chain to match up to a bar code on a physical case of meat." Such a bar code uses a reduced space symbology (RSS) technology, a next-generation scannable bar code system that provides more data for "space-constrained" applications. Technology is transforming food labels, as well. An Israeli company, Power Paper Ltd., has developed a paper-thin power source, which can be used in smart labels.

The power source makes the label "active," meaning that it can transfer more information over a longer range. KSW Microelectronics has licensed Power Paper's technology for use in KSW's smart labels that include a temperature sensor that can be used to monitor anything, from blood bags to frozen foods.

Keeping food secure at all stages of distribution is a long-term project, involving tens of thousands of purveyors. Some companies and industry associations already are dabbling with pilot projects using the eXtensible Markup Language (XML), a standard for exchanging data between them, over the Internet.

XML provides suppliers, partners and customers a standardized and securable way to share information over the Internet, so that centralized hubs will be possible for transacting and monitoring business. Several XML standards organizations, such as Rosettanet and OASIS, are helping vertical industries create collections of XML definitions and data that can be used when setting up a business-to-business supply chain operation on the Internet. A couple of specialized XML organizations are focusing on developing XML standards specific to meat and poultry (MeatXML) and grains (AgXML).

The key is to create data that can be exchanged electronically, thus improving the ability of companies to track products up and down the supply chain. Not to do so is to court disaster, says AMR's Martin.

"If things go wrong, people can go to jail—or even die," Martin says.

Expertise Online: Food Security

  1. Agricultural Information Technologies' tracking software
  2. AgXML: agricultural XML organization
  3. DuPont's security solutions
  4. Food Marketing Institute's bioterrorism resources
  5. Food Technology Group's software and services for food companies
  6. John Deere's Ag Management Solutions
  7. MeatXML: meat and poultry XML standards body
  8. Power Paper's smart labels
  9. RAPID: agriculture e-commerce standards group
  10. Uniform Code Council's RSS bar code technology
  11. U.S. Department of Agriculture's Homeland Security efforts

Protecting a Product Chain

  1. Document each step in the lifecycle of your product (raw materials to finished goods)
  2. Appoint a C-level executive ("chief product officer") to oversee all steps of production
  3. Refocus on quality of product delivery, not just speed, quantity and cost
  4. Minimize the number of different processes, to make it easier to track all steps
  5. Eliminate gaps in traceability by interconnecting all your information systems
  6. Bring in an independent specialist to help evaluate your processes and procedures
  7. Make product safety and compliance an executive-level priority

Source: AMR Research