As part of our ongoing expert Q&A series, a conversation with Paul Chang, who leads the Serialization/Traceability initiative at IBM, on how traceability can revolutionize global food safety–can the system be utilized by small farmers and producers?

Part II

Q: So, if you’re a processing plant taking chickens from lets say 10 different farms, how do you handle traceability when products from different locations are commingled?

A: The idea there is to uniquely identify individual containers of chicken parts–not sure how else to describe this–so you have, lets say, a hundred chickens you’ve gotten from one farm. As you’re processing you need to segregate those chicken parts through the processing plant, and the way you do that is to put them in a particular bin, you then associate the bin to the farm location. As chickens from other farms are brought in, they are also associated to different bins. But, lets say you’re making chicken sausage, and it does take ingredients from different chickens from five different farms…in that case, in the output of the product you wouldn’t know specifically which chicken farm, but you’d know collectively which chicken farms went into the sausage. In some cases it will be very specific, in other cases it wouldn’t be as specific, but it would still narrow it down.

Q: Can this be applied to any food product? What other sectors are you working in?

A: I think the beauty of IBM’s traceability solution is that it’s really designed to track entities, whether that entity is a box of mangoes, a package of chicken, a bottle of drugs, a head of lettuce, whatever it is, once you put on a unique ID, then the system is well capable of tracking it from farm to fork.

Q: Do you expect there to be a lot more opportunity for using this technology in the U.S. if the pending food safety bill passes?

A: Yes, I think the U.S. is the ultimate market; our food market is $600 billion. I think the adoption will increase significantly. One thing I want to highlight…obviously this is great for the safety aspect–you’re able to track things from farm to fork–but there are also many other potential benefits that I think the industry will realize. One of those is what we call freshness management. For example, if you know when certain mangoes, or bananas, or vegetables were harvested, if you knew that harvest date, how would you change your operations and change processes to reduce overall waste? Today, if you’ve got two different batches of spinach from two different vendors, you’ve got no idea which is going to expire first. In supermarkets I think it’s generally understood that 5-15 percent of all produce is thrown away. I think much of that could be reduced if they had visibility into the harvest data.

It’s a win-win situation. If you think about the amount of energy used to grow the vegetables or fruit, the amount of energy used to process, to transport it, and ultimately store it and display it at stores, only to be thrown away two days later because they didn’t have visibility, that’s a lot of waste.

Q: How much of this system relies on the honesty of the people inputting the data? Is there concern about that from potential clients?

A: Yes, that’s an excellent question. The idea is…once you have this visibility into the harvesting, into the processing, it also brings accountability. No system, in my view is 100 percent, but I think a system like this is going to make it difficult for people to lie and cheat because there will be visibility. There are also analytic pools, which can constantly monitor the data and send up a flag when it sees something odd (like a spike in production, or using a new supplier). Food safety has to do with the cleanliness of the production and making sure all of the good manufacturing practices are followed, but by sending an inspector every four years, that’s simply not sufficient, and that’s what we do today. We only have the manpower to send someone every four years.

I think the future of food safety really needs to move towards collecting data in real time and monitoring the data remotely. This way you can identify the higher risk situations instead of randomly sending people once every four years. It’s a significant shift in how the government agencies and how companies want to manage food safety. It’s no longer about doing investigations after something happens, it’s about monitoring things in real time so that hopefully you can prevent, or at the very least, minimize the impact.

Q: Is this a technology that’s only really feasible for large companies to implement? Is this something that a middle of the road manufacturer could implement or would it be difficult to spread the cost around?

A: I think it’s actually a solution that everyone in the food production world can deploy. We’re designing the system in such a way that it is affordable for everyone, including your ma and pop farm. I think the larger corporations will deploy systems by themselves; they will employ the IT, staffing, knowledge, etc, to manage the system. I think the smaller or mid-sized producers could leverage an industry association who could actually host the system on their behalf. IBM is also looking at offering a cloud version, where you have virtually no infrastructure and the ma and pop farmers would just use a smartphone to get their information into the network.

Q: So if you’re a small farmer, what kind of man hours and costs are looking at, let’s say you have an iPhone and you’re selling mixed greens, you’re saying this is really feasible for them to have this traceability system?

A: Oh absolutely. So this type of system will actually save them labor and time. They currently do a lot of those things manually. They still have to capture a lot of this information today, its just down manually and on pieces of paper. I think electronic systems make their jobs much, much easier. The information goes into a cloud that they can access and so can their customers. It really is bringing the food industry up to…very much like the financial industry, where things are in the electronic format. I think this gives the food industry an opportunity to really come into the 21st century.

See Part I of our discussion from yesterday here for insight on IBM’s food traceability partnership with Thailand and more on how the system works.