Supply chain management from farm to fork

by Frank Mahdavi

FROM THE MM&D JULY/AUGUST 2011 PRINT EDITION: The supply chain for any manufacturer can be complicated, but when it comes to food, the stakes are as high as human life. All it takes is one compromised ingredient and a long and complicated chain must be quickly untangled to make things safe again. The key to managing a tight supply chain is communication.

Full traceability

Manufacturers must be able to trace all ingredients along the chain, both back to their origin and forward to the consumer’s shopping cart—from farm to fork. Along the chain there are inspections, tests, label verifications, and so on. If food needs refrigeration, that also must be traceable along its entire route, and common allergens must be kept separate from other ingredients, with checkpoints all along the way.

Despite all these protections, food alerts and recalls happen frequently, and when they do, reaction time is critical. Lot and date codes must be accurate and accessible; if not, more product than necessary will be recalled, something that can cause an economic disaster. Every bit of suspect product must be documented and recalled, whether a little or a lot.

Sometimes a recall happens because of a problem with just one ingredient, like salt, that may be used in many ingredient-intensive products like salad dressing. To further complicate matters, the same product may show up under many different labels, giving it an even larger distribution pattern.

Global complexity

For many years, companies have managed with a manual system of paper records to document their supply chain. With global food distribution, this has become tougher to do. “With regional, national or international distribution, it can take a week to sort out a paper trail and figure out where all your ingredients came from and where your food products end up,” says Jack Payne, vice-president of enterprise software for CDC Software, and an expert in traceability technology for foodservice. “Then the task of notifying all those different suppliers and customers begins.”

Proper tracking, with the ability to notify, is easier using technology. According to Payne, “If you couple SCM (supply chain management) software with integrated notification technology, you can quickly figure out who needs to know what, and have the ability to alert suppliers and customers before a problem develops.”

By using SCM software with integrated notification technology, manufacturers can send an alert to any number of suppliers and customers at once, and allow recipients to respond easily. An alert will reach them on office phones, mobile phones, SMS, emails, pagers, BlackBerry PIN-to-PIN, fax, TTY or any IP-enabled device. The sender then has an automatic audit trail to easily determine who has received the message and who hasn’t, and keep a record of their responses. An alert can be sent to large customers, and with a touch of a key on their keypad, they can join a conference call to get questions answered and decide how to best manage a situation.

Easier recalls

Payne relates the tale of a food company producing dips shipped in glass bottles. The manufacturer received a load of bottles that on first inspection seemed fine, but once filled, revealed a flaw that made it seem as if  there was something foreign in the dip. Forty different products went into those bottles, and once packed, labelled and shipped they were distributed to 18 different retailers.

The flaw wasn’t discovered until the product landed on the shelf, but once noticed, the entire lot had to be recalled. With notification technology in place, this complicated task of issuing a recall was completed in minutes. The manufacturer notified everyone along the supply chain by sending a single alert—everyone was notified automatically. Even if those goods had shipped to 1,000 customers, tracking ingredients and notifying customers would still take just minutes with notification technology.

SCM software with integrated notification technology is also great for simply conveying important information, such as shipping alerts or delays. “Reports are great, but they happen after the fact. They are a bit like using your rearview mirror,” says Payne. “If you’re always looking behind you, you’re more likely to make a mistake on the road ahead.”

The right use of SCM software and notification helps companies keep their eyes on the road ahead. This makes operations more efficient, and puts healthier, safer food on the tables of consumers.

Frank Mahdavi, chief strategy officer for MIR3, Inc, is an authority on enterprise software solutions with a specific expertise in market trends in the notification technology space. Contact him at info@mir3.com.