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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.

"For the life of me, I cannot understand why the terrorists have not attacked our food supply, because it is so easy to do." You probably recall those less-than-comforting words uttered by Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson in his resignation speech nearly six months ago.

While those remarks didn't ease people's minds when grocery shopping that week, they highlighted a problem that the food and beverage industry can't ignore. Opportunities for foul play abound along the food supply chain, from infecting livestock with foot-and-mouth disease to introducing toxins while food is in transit. Many experts believe a terrorist could slip without notice into the highly transient food-processing workforce and introduce poisons into the supply chain at that point. In fact, al-Qaida training materials emphasize disrupting food-processing operations and attacking crops and livestock.

And should tainted food-- whether deliberately contaminated by terrorists or accidentally by bacteria--make its way into the nation's supermarkets and restaurants, the spreadsheet-based and manual systems that most of the industry's small and midsize companies use to track shipments mean it could be days before affected products are identified.

That's changing, however. Government regulations that go into effect by the end of next year have more companies implementing new software tools and processes to boost the safety of the food supply chain, and in the process shave costs, reduce errors, and improve productivity and customer service. At the end of last year, the Food and Drug Administration finalized section 306 of the Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act of 2002, or "Track and Trace," that requires most every business in the U.S. food supply chain to keep detailed records on receipt and shipment of goods--where they come from, who they've been sent to, lot numbers, and more--and to be able to supply that information four to eight hours after it's requested. Other rules in the act require companies to register food facilities and provide advanced notice of food shipments coming from abroad.

Some companies, particularly larger producers, consumer packaged-goods companies, and retail outlets, have in place sophisticated enterprise-resource-planning and supply-chain systems that already help them meet the Track and Trace requirements. Tracking is becoming "much more granular and centers around the concerns of potential terrorist attacks against the food supply," says Mike Dominy, an independent supply-chain analyst and consultant. But as much as 75% of companies that touch the food supply chain still are managing their inventory with disconnected spreadsheets and paper documents, supply-chain vendor Ross Systems Inc. estimates.

Protecting the food supply chain is critical, says Berner VP Gold (right, with IT director Grove). ''Minutes can save lives.'' -- Photo by Jeff Sciortino

Protecting the food supply chain is critical, says Berner VP Gold (right, with IT director Grove). "Minutes can save lives."

Photo by Jeff Sciortino
That was the case not long ago at Berner Foods Inc., a 60-year-old cheese producer with around $50 million in annual revenue. Growth led the private company to start thinking about improving its technology and processes six years ago. "We were growing so fast that if we didn't do something about [data collection], we would have ended up with data up to our face," IT director Troy Grove says. "We wouldn't be able to analyze it."

The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks accelerated Berner's plans. "What [the FDA] was going to require was written on the wall," says Gary Gold, VP of quality assurance.

In 2002, Berner turned to Ross Systems' iRenaissance suite of ERP apps to help the company better track its manufacturing operations, including shipments of finished products, quality control, regulatory compliance, food safety, supplier management, financials, and regulatory management. This provided a more centralized information repository that improved on its hodgepodge approach, where data was entered onto spreadsheets and stored in file cabinets. The Ross system offers quality control to help companies track date codes and lots; supplier-management features, including requisitions, receiving, and invoicing of raw materials; and a regulatory-management module for documentation of results. Later, Berner also deployed Ross' Internet Application Framework to provide users with a Web-based interface.

Since implementing its system, Berner has reduced the time it takes to track and trace ingredients it receives from suppliers, as well as dairy products that it ships out, from a full day to 45 minutes. Berner never knows when a simulated product recall will require it to track where certain products were shipped and what ingredients were used. Now that employees don't have to sift through mountains of paper and files, the process is a lot smoother. That's important because following the new regulations comes down to "how quickly and accurately [the food industry] can respond," says Paul Moylan, a food marketing consultant at Rockwell Automation Inc., which provides IT services to the industrial process manufacturing industry, among others.

Berner has the ability at any time to look into its system and forward in its supply chain to see where a product shipped or backward to know exactly what ingredients were used in its production, Grove says.

"We have one person looking to see where it went--what date, how much," Gold says. "And we have someone looking into inventory to see what we have on hand, and what was shipped, while another examines what was produced and in what lot numbers."

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