Technology that can transform the global food supply

Wednesday, November 27, 2019 5:20 pm EST


Ryan Jarvis, Head of Vertical Markets Food, Beverage and Consumer Packaged Goods at Siemens

Feasting time is upon us in the United States. For Thanksgiving dinner, Americans will consume 45 million turkeys. At Christmas, we’ll eat 22 million more. Add to that millions of tons of veggies and fruit (I’m not happy without cranberries and sweet potatoes).

As we give thanks, I’ll also join many Americans in recognizing what a massive quantity of food has to be processed, packaged and shipped, as Americans are increasingly focused on the quality and origin of their food. In a recent survey, 92% of consumers reported that knowing where their food is coming from is “somewhat to very important.”

Food safety and traceability factor into every meal we eat. Even in highly industrialized and regulated countries like the United States, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 48 million Americans get sick each year from food-borne illness and 128,000 people must be hospitalized. The cost of medical treatment, lost productivity and illness-related mortality is estimated to be many tens of billions of dollars a year.

In addition, food contamination creates enormous waste. In the past year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recalled more than 200 million pounds of food due to contamination. 

New technologies, however, are rising to address these challenges of food safety.

Sanitization: Fighting off pathogens

Even as the global food industry spends an estimated $5.5 billion per year on sanitization, food quality problems have persisted. But an emerging technology promises significant improvement over existing methods. 

Using Pulsed Ultra Violet Light (PUV) in combination with advanced automation technology, the start-up company Clean Beam is set to disrupt the sanitization of food processing plants. Its solution tackles a critical contamination pathway into the food supply: footwear-borne pathogens. Existing solutions to footwear sanitization (chemical baths, booties and captive footwear, for example) are fraught with complications, including high cost, difficult compliance, and decreasing effectiveness with increasing use. Clean Beam’s approach addresses all three of these with a machine that is capable of an almost unlimited number of sanitization cycles that are 10,000 times more effective at eliminating bacteria than current approaches.

Traceability: Blockchain helps back claims

Another example is the breakthrough opportunity that blockchain technology brings to integrity in the food supply.

Traditional methods of tracking and tracing are highly manual, decentralized, contain gaps and are prone to tampering. On the contrary, a blockchain is a decentralized, distributed and shared digital ledger that is used to record transactions across participants in an ecosystem. Under a blockchain, a record (or transaction that is stored in a “block”) cannot be altered retroactively without affecting all subsequent blocks. Adding in the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), the blockchain has the potential to include information from almost all touchpoints along the food supply network.  

Thus suppliers, producers, processors, purveyors and, ultimately, consumers can be confident that the ingredients of a meal have not been tampered with and that any claims (organic, fair trade, etc.) are valid. This enables in the long run a win-win scenario for the food industry and consumers, as studies indicate many consumers would be willing to pay a higher price for transparent food if the product information matches customer preferences.

Manufacturers will continue to do their best to ensure a safe and transparent food supply.  Aided by some of these new technologies, I expect to see accelerating progress.

That’s better living, and better eating, through technology.


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