Where did my dinner come from? I want to know

Want to know where that food product came from? Pull out your smartphone and point at it, advises IBM's Paul Chang.
Written by Paul Chang, Contributor on

Paul Chang is IBM's Worldwide Leader for its Smarter Supply Chain Solutions group.

You’re in the grocery store, staring at a row of fish, trying to figure out which one is the most sustainable. Then you spot a code on the label and breathe a sigh of relief. You pull out your smartphone, aim it at a code, and presto, you know instantly when, how, and where that cod was caught -- and that you can now grill it up guilt free tonight.

This is the future of food, one that’s barreling towards us. In China, with its recent spate of food safety issues, shoppers are using bar codes in markets to track down -- and pay more for -- chickens raised in Hong Kong, which has a better food safety record. Westfleisch, Europe’s fifth largest producer of meat, is slapping QR codes on its products so consumers in stores can track where an animal was raised and slaughtered and when it was packaged.

In part, this transition to smarter food is happening because today’s consumers are voracious when it comes to information about what they put on their tables.

They have plenty of reasons to be so demanding. Our industrialized and distributed food supply network is creating more bounty -- and at the same time, more risks than ever. Problems at any one packaging facility anywhere in the world can make thousands of people ill. Today, less than 20 per cent of consumers think that the food they buy is safe and healthy, according to a recent IBM survey. At the same time, shoppers want to know more about our food chain simply because in our data-driven, instant-access world, we can.

Leading-edge food producers and marketers are beginning to respond to this call for more information. Providing more insight into where food comes from, how it’s raised and harvested, what kind of carbon emissions it produces, and how it’s handled throughout the supply chain can inspire more loyalty among shoppers and in some cases a willingness to spend more.

Thailand, one of the world’s largest producers and exporters of agricultural products, is combining sensors, cloud computing, and wireless technology to create a massive, real-time database of food exports. Barcodes placed on mangos or shipments of chicken are tracking products each time they change hands, tracing who produced and handled them and under what conditions.

This system can be used for everything from quickly pinpointing contaminations to improving inspections. For instance, to more effectively pinpoint which imports to inspect, the FDA could use predictive modeling to crunch historical data, refrigeration information, and the length of time a product has been en route.

But the force propelling this trend to smarter food supplies is the understanding among supply chain, growers, distributors and retailers that by sharing information, they can become much more efficient, productive and less wasteful. With more transparency and visibility, every aspect of the supply chain can act more efficiently, improve the freshness of food, increase sales and help save money.

Suppliers, for example, could use data about demand within grocery stores to track which products are selling how so that they could ship larger parts of their harvests to regions or stores where demand -- and prices -- are higher or even potentially adjust harvest dates.

Or conversely, grocery chains can uncover ways of getting fresher products to their shelves faster and more cheaply by tracking data about thousands of different products as they move from the fields in California through a consolidator to their stores around the country.

Among the most innovative companies are those that are focusing on the sustainability and the carbon footprint of their operations. They’re pulling together all the massive amounts of data available within their supply chains to figure out the overall cost and environmental impact of the products that they buy so that they can finally understand the total cost of those purchases and look for ways to do business with more sustainability. Rather then focusing on shipping in cheap produce from far away, they’re looking more broadly at the cost they’re incurring with the carbon footprint of the products they put on their shelves.

The fact that big data is changing how companies understand their operations isn’t surprising. But what’s remarkable is how quickly this data will transform our relationship with food, empowering consumers and companies in the supply chain alike.

More: IBM, Fairway Market Build Smarter Food Network

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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