Supply chain safety or the genetic code of everything

In a recent Forbes article we could read that the CDC estimates that approximately one in six Americans get sick each year from foodborne diseases, leading to roughly 3,000 deaths. This is well in line with the horrifying stories of the milk powder scandals and 300,000 thousand affected babies. The news about shortcomings and effects of irresponsible behavior in respect to the supply chain is taking its toll. Apparently is our knowledge about the origin and the risks of materials, parts and products limited. What can be done to better protect our lives?

Authenticity is the first step. In order to ensure authenticity, safety, security and quality of the food we eat and the products we use, there is not only the one solution needed but a bundle of protective measures. In addition to the obvious standards and efficient certification processes, we are in need of pragmatic laws and regulation. We also require reliable product tracing technology allowing the seamless follow through and detailed information about the products — about the score against the standard — and insights in the organisations involved; these can be transportation companies, traders and manufacturers. The effective protection requires data sharing, and maybe the need to establish an independent and efficient data market.

The ultimate protection of our health requires the genetic code of everything!

What we need is the full set of information of each and every product — the unique product fingerprint which can be compared with the database of safe practices. We need the measurement of truth, the proof of compliance with standards, laws and regulations. Imagine that all products we consider buying carried the QR code providing pre-checked information, including the origin, the quality and the manufacturing process. Imagine that through the internet every smart phone user would be able to retrieve the specific information about the meat we eat, the soap we love, and the paint used in the offices, the apartments, and the public buildings we are living in or we are visiting.

Total Supply Chain Visibility: a vision in the making?

Governments and organisations like the Consumer Goods Forum are working to develop and share best practices. The United States passed the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA) to establish safety standards and requirements for children’s products. The supplier certifications accepted by the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) aim at delivering safe food to citizens worldwide. The private sector plays its role too. Large companies help small farmers to fulfill requirements. There are around 700 global certification programmes. Probably too many, creating complexities which might slow down processes and cause unnecessary costs.

Laws and regulations have been put in place elevating traceability beyond just a value-added to the supply chain. In the European Union traceability has been obligatory for all businesses in the food chain since January 2005. In the United States of America, the Bioterrorism Act came into effect for larger companies in 2005 and for smaller players in 2006, with similar requirements regarding records to identify previous sources. Traceability becomes the new standard in the modern supply chain.

Most companies are mapping the parts of the supply chain under their control. However, the exercise needs to go beyond the borders of direct responsibility and control. We need visibility of the whole flow. Starting upstream at the mines and fields, going further along the various steps of manufacturing and assembling of products or the processing of food down to the buyers and subsequent cycles of usage. Unfortunately, in the eye of catastrophes such as the salmonella outbreaks companies sometimes appear ill-equipped to respond quickly.

With the new age of digitisation, with the emergence of sensors in almost everything — from electronics and vehicles to cloth and wallpaper governments, organisations and companies can gather and compile enormous quantities of data. More importantly the information can be transmitted to the internet where various applications can enrich, analyse, organise, and store the records. Through product identification, unique tracking numbers and labeling, we are able to link materials, parts, products and food back to specific data relating to the production, and distribution. Through the new technologies we have access to the entire cycle history. Held available in internet platforms, users can swiftly and easily retrieve this information by smart devices like phones, watches and other wearables. The proof of traceability might soon be the minimum standard for doing business in the digital age.

Where are the hurdles? Traditionally, individuals and companies struggle to exchange information and data. Furthermore, there are standardisation gaps and security concerns. Privacy protection is a challenge too. One solution might be a data market. Similar to the stock exchange this place of clear rules and supervision would allow to safely and swiftly exchange and monetise the data gathered or produced by the different parties. The data market would be an incentive to generate and share even more data.

There is much to gain!

Beyond our own individual safety, many opportunities lure in the world of the retrievable genetic code of everything. Players along the value chain, like raw material providers, suppliers, manufacturers and food processors can differentiate themselves from competition through visibility and an enlarged safety offer. Logistics and transportation companies can enhance their vertical knowledge and build new services around data management and the orchestration of the relationships along the supply and value chain. New services and players will emerge. TrueTag and CLEARthru are examples of this development.

Despite all technology and process innovation, we still need to act upon the new wealth of information and knowledge to protect ourselves. The responsibility for the health and wellbeing of the planet and society will stay with us and the many other consumers and buyers everywhere on the globe. It is up to us all to accept or reject. Finally: as most tracing technology has been available for so long, we might wish to consider to push a bit harder on the implementation and utilisation.

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