Food safety issues at one farm can quickly grow into deadly outbreaks of food-borne illness that cost $152 billion a year in the U.S., as shown by a recent case of contaminated cantaloupes that have killed 25 people. To counter such possible threats, one fruit supplier has enlisted IBM technology to better track their produce all the way from harvest to supermarket shelves.
The growers collective, called Cherry Central, can now see data about their fruit during harvesting, sorting, processing and distribution — essentially their entire food supply chain. Spreading such technology to more of the U.S. food supply chain could have a big impact when 6 billion cases of fruits and vegetables alone travel across the U.S. each year.
"This visibility is enabling us to take proactive measures to ensure food safety and ultimately protect the consumer," said Steve Eiseler, vice president of operations at Cherry Central Cooperative.
Workers use mobile devices similar to smartphones or tablets to record date, time, location, temperature and other information about food quality at each step. All the data upload to a central database where managers can see everything that's happening at once, and has led to productivity boosts of 50 percent.
Cherry Central has already cut down on data entry mistakes by not having to record everything on paper checklists and questionnaires and then typing them up on computers. It can also respond to food quality or safety problems early on by having instant, software-driven analysis of the data at its fingertips, rather than having to wait hours or days to act.
"With [paper reports], you might not see a problem until a supervisor checks the reports during the next shift or that night," Eiseler told InnnovationNewsDaily.
A group such as Cherry Central could even get a boost in business from scared customers during food illness outbreaks, if it can quickly prove that its produce is unaffected by the contamination, said Angela Paymard, chairwoman of N2N Global. Her company equipped Cherry Central with a food safety program built upon IBM servers and systems.
Grocery store customers can't yet see such information about the origins of their food when checking their smartphones in the supermarket aisles. But a "push from consumers" for more transparency about food sources could make that a reality in the coming years, Eiseler said.