Creating Interoperability in the Food Supply Chain

For years we have approached problems that arise within the food supply chain in a segmented manner. If something happens at step 27 along the chain, X, Y, and Z are identified as the appropriate controls, corrective actions, and measures to take. This is a limited, even stove-pipe, approach to food safety that may be hitting its limits in the modern food industry. 

In their most literal sense, chains should be comprised of distinct yet interconnected links. The food supply chain is no different. While every phase, from farming, to production, to processing, to packaging, to transportation and to retail has a different yet important role, it is critical that we understand how they work together, and how the information created at each step interrelates. This is particularly important to creating an advanced, interconnected food safety scenario – one that the FDA has recently referred to as “A new era of smarter food safety”.  Creating an effective food safety system, such as suggested by the FDA statement from this month, requires more than just interconnectivity, it requires interoperability. Collaboration will soon no longer be a suggestion, but a necessity.

Interoperability

It’s difficult to overemphasize the importance of this holistic approach. While there are distinct areas of food safety— including supply chain, process, allergen and sanitation controls— being able to share data across those sectors and validate each other’s efficacy is becoming not only necessary but expected. As individual companies build strategic partnerships across the food supply chain, customers expect cohesion — which unfortunately doesn’t happen automatically.

An analogous industry example can help us to set the context for our thinking. For a decade, the healthcare industry has been working to improve interoperability across the care continuum to create a more comprehensive understanding of a single patient. Getting clinical specialists, lab techs, pharmacy personnel, etc. to exchange patient data seamlessly was not an easy task, but undoubtedly worth pursuing, to improve efficiency and more importantly, to improve patient outcomes. The industry has now adopted the EHR (electronic health record) as a standard means of collecting, sharing and monitoring the chain of services and outcomes pertaining to patients.

Now is the time for the food world to follow suit. In our industry, interoperability of food safety and quality data will serve us all with improved outcomes and operational efficiency.

Taking the Lead

Similar to how the healthcare industry has revolutionized the way they leverage information digitally with the EHR, the food industry must also alter the current manual and often paper-based food safety programs of today. A decade after healthcare began to recognize and prioritize the operational benefits of data, it is time for food suppliers, manufacturers, and labs to do the same. 

Fortunately, the structures for doing so exist and the incentives are clear. The operational and financial benefits are inextricable— with more information, the better control companies have over the food safety risks they face, and ultimately the faster they can remediate issues before they cause a major financial impact.  Digital information management systems are already enabling some companies to embrace this holistic approach, by allowing them to house and interact with their data in a way they could never before. However, mass adoption will only come when the biggest players embrace the concept. Leaders lead… and our industry needs leaders to advance the digital initiative with food safety. 

For the food industry to follow down the same path as healthcare, leadership must take the first steps. Those at the forefront will stand to benefit the most, by helping to steer and shape how this data will be standardized— ushering in a new era from the top down.

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