A new tech tool kit
In an industry that operates under tight margins, additional technology in the supply chain needs to make financial sense to earn widespread adoption.
“If technology can be more efficient and help offset some of the increasing costs in labor, energy, and freight, I think you’ll find a willingness for more producers and operators to embrace it,” says Chris Oliviero, general manager at Niman Ranch. “But, if it’s not going to do that, I think there’s enough headwind, in terms of some of those other areas, that there will be a bit of reluctance.” California-founded and now Colorado-based Niman Ranch was a trailblazer in sustainable, humanely raised livestock when it was founded 50 years ago. To this day, its network of farms and ranches serves as a model that others aspire to emulate.
Technologies currently being utilized in whole, or in part, within the supply chain include blockchain, big data, artificial intelligence (AI), RFID, and the industrial internet of things (iiot). These technologies all require additional work from farmers, suppliers, manufacturers, and distributors to build a standardized electronic labeling system that can be tracked along the supply chain.
Meanwhile, chefs are generally happiest with low-tech solutions that allow them to provide sustainable food to their customers. “The ability to pick up the phone and call a producer is really all the tech I need,” Hammett says. “Having a positive working relationship with the farmers and distributors has been one of the keys to our supply chain.”
For the most part, consumers may not see large changes occurring at the chef or operator level, beyond rallying support around a more traceable supply chain. “There’s great pressure put on the seafood industry due to the widespread nature of fraud,” says chef Barton Seaver, chief educator at SeafoodLiteracy.com. He thinks the best application of current supply chain technology moves from the vendor level backward since those purveyors are just as interested as the end operator in selling the truth. “They’ve got just as much on the line,” he adds.
WWF’s Canavan sees innovation across the board, noting that the speed at which it’s happening is impressive. Various stakeholders across the supply chain are able to monitor the progress of a particular product thanks to satellite imagery, drones, and even specialized phone apps.
While some large livestock producers are looking into blockchain, others such as Niman Ranch, which works with a network of small, independent farms, are taking a less complex approach. “What’s really important to us is the transparency angle,” Oliviero says. “Our farmers are compensated, in part, on meat quality, so we need to trace each animal they send through the plant.”
Some farmers may only send Niman Ranch five hogs at a time, making it difficult to track the animals once they commingle with others on the truck, Oliviero says. In fact, he says the greatest challenge is maintaining that connection with the individual hog once it’s broken down into individual products.
Blockchain, a cryptographic technology that uses time stamps and transaction data to link records, could be a game-changer in supply chain management. But first it requires data and buy-in from players across the chain. “That’s where foodservice falls a little bit behind, because not everybody is engaged at this point,” Reinstein says.
Arrowstream’s Olvera favors IIoT since it allows users to put tangible goods on the internet and track them along the supply chain. Through IIoT sensors, operators can track a number of variables, such as temperatures in warehouses and trucks. “We’re seeing more integration of track-and-trace [technology] through IIoT devices, which will probably be the precursor to anything like blockchain,” he says.
Whether suppliers and distributors choose blockchain, IIoT, or another system entirely, Olvera is beginning to see automated processes taking over. Data integrations are occurring in stages and making the process easier for everyone along the supply chain.