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5/20/2005
11:30 AM
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Food Chain's Fear Factor

Software tools play a part in protecting the nation's food supply from accidental or deliberate contamination.

The new plan is to be able to complete tracking in less than 45 minutes. "We're looking at ways to trim five minutes from certain processes. We're certain we can get the time down to below 30 minutes," Gold says. The next enhancement includes using terminals or handhelds to gather data on the shop floor and more Web-services connections to retrieve data from both sides of its supply chain faster, hook that data into its ERP system, and display it simultaneously on one screen. "This will be a big improvement for data gathering," Gold says.

The company recouped the roughly $300,000 in software and services spent for the initial iRenaissance implementation through greater control of inventory. "We reduced expired inventory from $250,000 to $300,000 to between $7,000 and $9,000," Grove says.

For some companies, especially larger ones that are balancing multiple initiatives, the trick is determining how their own technology and their customers' technology requirements can be leveraged to meet FDA demands. "We're evaluating how what the FDA is asking us to do with Track and Trace--along with our own RFID and inventory initiatives, as well as what some big retailers are requesting--to put together a framework to centrally manage all of these demands and initiatives," says a senior VP of IT at a large national beverage producer.

Nearly a third of consumer packaged-goods companies say the Track and Trace rules are the primary reason for implementing or planning to implement radio-frequency identification technology, according to the Yankee Group. Another 60% of consumer-goods companies say RFID and the information associated with the tags and the EPCglobal directory that maintains this data would be very beneficial or extremely beneficial in the product-recall process.

"They're deploying technologies such as RFID, bar codes, and wireless readers to make sure they can collect, track, and trace data about where inventory is throughout the food supply chain," analyst Dominy says. "They're collecting information about the sources of supplies, from what pasture, field, or supplier it came from to where the ultimate product shipped."

Such RFID-tracking initiatives are under way in the cattle industry (see "Cattlemen's Beef Association Readies RFID Program," Dec. 23). Earlier this month, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association issued a request for proposals to design a database for tracking cattle and livestock information, which it hopes to have implemented by October.

The Bama Cos., which makes pies, cookies, and frozen-dough products for companies such as McDonald's and Taco Bell, uses a bar-code seal that records the serial numbers on rail shipments of the corn syrup it uses in its products. Track and Trace "is a big deal right now," CFO Bill Chew says, necessitating a big change in how the company keeps a log of the ingredients it uses.


Bioterror Act
Requirements of the Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act include:

>> Final rules authorize the FDA to access food-related records if food may have been contaminated and presents a serious health threat

>> The rules apply to all records involved in the manufacturing, processing, packing, distribution, receipt, holding, or importation of food

>> Previous rules under the Bioterror Act include the registration of domestic and foreign food facilities and prior notice of imported food shipments

Not too long ago, each time a rail shipment of corn syrup arrived, a worker had to climb on top of the rail tanker car to manually record a unique seal-identification number and then input the information into Bama's tracking system. If the seal was tampered with, broken, or improperly recorded, the shipment could be rejected and sent for safety testing, Chew says. Such lost shipments can cost the company $25,000. Bama records about 60,000 seals each year, and having workers run from railcars back to the office to input the data was expensive, with too much room for errors, Chew says.

As a result, earlier this year the company installed a system called SealTrac, co-developed by mobile-computing device maker Psion Teklogix Inc. and mobile application maker Anyware Mobile Solutions, to better track safety seals. Workers carry a Psion handheld computer with Anyware software to scan bar-code information from safety seals on railcars, as well as on hoses used to siphon out the syrup and on the tanks where the syrup is stored. The data is then wirelessly transmitted to a central database to immediately record that a shipment is available for use in production. "You don't have to run numbers to see that if you can automate this process and automatically scan it, it eliminates a huge opportunity for error and cuts labor costs," Chew says.

It's that kind of attention to the food supply that may save lives, should something happen by accident or malicious attack. Of course, it's not just the IT element that has to be under tight control. These companies also are thinking about boosting security in non-IT arenas. Berner is considering doing more on-site product testing before a shipment leaves the site. It takes two days to get results back from product tests, and if anything suspicious surfaces, it means calling back products that are already on their way to stores. On-site testing could provide results in 15 hours, giving the company plenty of time to recall products before they land on store shelves.

Whether IT-driven or not, steps to protect the food supply chain are critical. "Minutes can save lives," Gold says. "I have kids, and that's what I think about. The more quickly we can do this, the more quickly everyone can react if something were to happen."

Photograph by Jeff Sciortino

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