Food Safety for the 21st Century

Feb. 1, 2019
Farmers and manufacturers are turning to automation for prevention-based control throughout the supply chain. The technology will help them comply with the looming deadlines of the Food Safety Modernization Act.

This article was originally posted on October 17, 2017, as part of Automation World's October print issue.It has been reposted as a result of new developments in food safety technology. To get the latest on blockhain for the supply chain, read Walmart Gets Bold About Blockchain.

On a little farm in Peterborough, N.H., students are using advanced sensor instrumentation in a greenhouse growing tomatoes to collect valuable data around the taste and quality of the fruit. It is also a chance to educate students on how crops can be managed throughout the agricultural supply chain to support food quality, sustainability, traceability and nutrition.

Indeed, this is no ordinary farm. It is the Cornucopia Project, a non-profit farm-to-fork organization that is teaching next-generation farmers about 21st century agriculture and how to harvest tastier, more sustainable—and safe—food. It is so advanced that it is even using blockchain technology, a distributed ledger and unalterable peer-to-peer recordkeeping system that enables the secure sharing of information in the supply chain. The blockchain technology, provided by, can track crop lifecycle from seed to distributor to retailer to consumer, bringing transparency and accountability across the supply chain.

This educational experiment is extremely important as consumers, retailers and the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) focus on food safety. Specifically, the FDA’s Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), signed into law in 2011, is now bumping up against compliance dates.

The Preventive Controls for Human Food compliance date for some businesses began in 2015. But the FDA has provided extensions for small businesses through 2020, in some cases. Noting that “prevention is key for produce safety standards,” the FDA just last month released a compliance guide for small business under the FSMA produce safety rule, and also announced new steps to enhance collaboration with states to ensure farmers are prepared for FSMA.

Analog Devices’ Erick Olsen (center) and senior engineer Rob O’Reilly, with participants of The Cornucopia Project, view tomatoes grown with the crop monitoring system.​

To achieve FSMA compliance, the FDA requires comprehensive controls across all food supplies, including records access, mandatory recall guidelines, enhanced product tracing abilities, record keeping of high-risk foods, importer accountability and, more recently, prevention of intentional adulteration (food sabotage).

But for many food producers, regulatory compliance is a cost that is not in their budget. “We are talking about an industry that is mature and huge, but highly competitive,” says Steven Burton, CEO and founder of Icicle Technologies, which provides production management and food safety compliance software. “They operate on razor thin margins. I feel bad for them, persisting on skinny margins and then adding the regulatory overhead on top of that.”

But forward-thinking companies are looking at the investments required for regulatory compliance as an opportunity to gain a competitive advantage in the future. And that means investing in automation and technology that will connect the supply chain together as well as increase quality in all operations and ultimately lower cost.

“It comes back to preventive-based control,” says Scott Deakins, chief operating officer of Deacom, an enterprise resource planning (ERP) software company. “That’s what resonates with customers. And that’s what they are looking for from technology and automation.”

From gut feel to got it
Farmers, historically, have operated on “gut feel” based on their generational learning. But when it comes to food health and traceability, gut feel doesn’t cut it. So their No. 1 burden right now isn’t environmental, but bureaucratic.

“Farmers of all sizes that contribute to the food supply are bound by FSMA,” says Erick Olsen, strategic marketing manager at Analog Devices. He also serves as the smart agriculture manager with the Cornucopia Project. “That means they have to know what part of a field every piece of produce was picked from and tie it back to any amendments added to the field in the form of fertilization or pest control, so they know with confidence that they can pick and deliver a healthy product.”

Analog Devices is providing a prototype of its crop monitoring system, which measures environmental factors that help farmers make decisions around irrigation, fertilization, pest management and harvesting. This sensor-to-cloud Internet of Things (IoT) system is based on near-real-time monitoring to produce measurements that are combined with a near infrared (NIR) miniaturized spectrometer to analyze food quality. The NIR spectrometer from Consumer Physics is a non-destructive technology that generates a fingerprint of the fruit or vegetable.

“The goal is to develop a history,” Olsen says. “Our advanced prototype field sensors are [gathering] all that data, which is being sent to a gateway and up to the cloud.”

In addition to the pilot test with the Cornucopia Project, Analog Devices is working with 19 farms in Massachusetts. Farmers can log in, go to a dashboard and see the data, which can be set up to send alerts around humidity or temperature, for example.

“The ultimate goal is to create a central repository of all of the data from the field, data from spectroscopy, and farmer data,” Olsen says, noting that the data can be used for traceability—which is where blockchain comes in. The blockchain technology can pull data to be deployed as a trusted ledger to help validate claims like freshness and taste.

Farmers have another intelligent tool available to them in the form of tractors, sprayers and combines. The John Deere precision agriculture business is taking the sensor data that the company has been deploying on its equipment to create applications that provide value for the customers.

“Our machines are collecting data through sensors and cameras for two reasons,” says Lane Arthur, director of digital solutions for John Deere’s Precision Agriculture business. “One is machine data. We are collecting data around fuel, load on the wheels, etc., to see how well the machine is performing. Second, we collect agronomic data to see how well the machine is doing the work we want it to do.” For example, there could be 70 sensors pulling data into a centralized place to provide information on overall planter positioning.

Meanwhile, with the John Deere Operations Center app, farmers can access, analyze and share data about where equipment and people are—managing farm operations from a single interface. This reduces mistakes and waste to achieve optimal yield.

“Farmers are using data to drive operations and to better understand how they can make more money by being more effective and efficient with machinery or the use of seeds and chemicals,” Arthur says. They realize if they have more visibility into what is actually happening, they can manage it better. “Farmers are trying to feed the world in the most productive way they can. And yes, it is about food safety, too, as a lot of precision ag is used to help document what is actually happening in the field.”

While farmers own that data, they also now have a way to share it with others across the supply chain through technology advances that will ease data exchange between systems. For example, LinkFresh, an ERP system designed specifically for the fresh food industry, has the capability to pull data from John Deere equipment, says Richard Jones, chief technology officer of LinkFresh.

Oh, data
Recently, LinkFresh shifted its ERP system from looking only at raw materials arriving at the back door of the manufacturer to addressing operations at the farm. If an operator on a John Deere combine has LinkFresh on an iPad, the system can pull signals coming from IoT beacons on the equipment to pick up information on how the equipment is being used.

This is possible because the data hand-off is getting easier due to developments like the Open Data Protocol (OData), an ISO/IEC-approved OASIS standard that defines best practices for building and consuming RESTful APIs.

That means LinkFresh can query other systems for food safety or logistical data, collecting reference information that might not be part of the system, such as soil data or historical harvest data, which can help in making business decisions.

“People buy the LinkFresh system because they want one version of the truth,” Jones says. “Centralized access to everything in food defense is vital. And customers want it across the supply chain, so field data capture is a big thing for us at the moment.”

LinkFresh can also handle quality inspections throughout the product lifecycle. Users can configure when inspections are to be performed. For example, a guy unloads a truck of bananas and is prompted on a screen to inspect them for sun damage or spiders in the box. “You don’t have to reconfigure the software; just add what tests to perform,” Jones says, noting that now the need to test and validate can be deployed immediately onsite.

Other ERP vendors, such as Deacom and QAD, also provide functionality for FSMA compliance while giving manufacturers the ability to raise the bar around efficiency and quality.

As Deacom’s Deakins previously mentioned, a big part of FSMA is preventive-based controls. “People are looking for a platform to record and analyze trends to do predictive analysis for potential hazards with food products,” he says. The Deacom system tracks all data points and performs quality control tests on raw materials to make sure they pass inspection. It can also look at historical quality data to do statistical analysis to see what products are at risk. A cleaning and scheduling aspect of the system predicts when sanitation needs to be done on a machine based on what is being produced.

QAD tackles FSMA for its customers in five steps: compliance, preventive measures, reactive measures, recall management and incident control. The company’s Product Genealogy module runs through the majority of this process as it incorporates serialization for inventory identification, quality control and track and trace from the raw materials to the packaging materials.

“The food safety process must be managed every time that food is touched, stocked or moved,” says Stephen Dombroski, senior marketing manager for consumer and food and beverage markets at QAD. “Let’s say there is a food recall and basic stuff is tracked from the store to the trucking company to the warehouse to the manufacturing line to the farm. That’s the entire supply chain. But what about the plastic that the product was wrapped in?”

Allergens and adulteration
There are definitely many new things to think about when it comes to food safety. Like terrorism. Which is why the FDA’s traditional focus around hazard analysis and critical control points (HACCP) has expanded to hazard analysis and risk-based preventive controls (HARPC), which covers everything in HACCP but also requires that companies evaluate their products and processing for biological, chemical, physical and radiological hazards, as well as toxins, allergens and intentionally introduced hazards, including acts of terrorism.

That’s why Icicle, which used to be a pure food safety app based on HACCP, has evolved into a production management system that includes food safety as one of many components. For example, a vendor management module can manage large numbers of suppliers in order to know if they provide organic or gluten-free products, or what certifications they have. Equipment maintenance is another piece to make sure machines are clean and sanitized.

And then there’s the Foreign Supplier Verification Programs (FSVP) rule, which is part of FSMA. “That tsunami is ready to crash ashore,” says Icicle’s Burton. “Foreign suppliers to America have to comply with FSMA regulations, and responsibility is upon importers and brokers importing food to make sure foreign suppliers accommodate new FSMA requirements.”

According to Burton, the FDA has sent thousands of inspectors to physically inspect facilities in 150 foreign countries. “We have a customer in Italy that got a call out of the blue from an FDA inspector saying they were on their way and that they need to comply with FSMA,” he says.

Icicle can help, Burton says, because it is a cloud-based app that can model the process steps involved in producing food—covering all of the HACCP and HARPC mandates and FSMA compliance.

The food industry is under pressure to comply with FDA regulations—and the FDA never said how to comply. But the good news is that there are tools available that will help. If done right, this could be a transformative time for the industry as it implements technology for the 21st century farmer and manufacturer.

About the Author

Stephanie Neil | Editor-in-Chief, OEM Magazine

Stephanie Neil has been reporting on business and technology for over 25 years and was named Editor-in-Chief of OEM magazine in 2018. She began her journalism career as a beat reporter for eWeek, a technology newspaper, later joining Managing Automation, a monthly B2B manufacturing magazine, as senior editor. During that time, Neil was also a correspondent for The Boston Globe, covering local news. She joined PMMI Media Group in 2015 as a senior editor for Automation World and continues to write for both AW and OEM, covering manufacturing news, technology trends, and workforce issues.

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