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“Consumers want to know exactly where their food is sourced from.”

08 August 2014

Food Processing talks to Mark Staples, Key Client Manager covering Strategy, Innovation and Development for UK&I at Schneider Electric about traceability in the food chain.

Why is traceability an issue in the food and beverage industry?
Given the fairly recent scandals that have blighted the food industry, consumers are now acutely aware of just how processed our food is. In light of this, there is mounting pressure from the consumer for manufacturers to deliver sustainable and responsible food products. The consumer is becoming more and more savvy, thanks to the internet and advances in technology, with access to more information on where their food is sourced from and how it is produced – as well as what its ingredients and contents are – than ever before. We are now in the age of the ‘green’ and sustainability-conscious consumer, meaning the issue of traceability will not disappear, and if anything, it will become increasingly important as the consumer becomes more informed and demanding. And, as supermarkets have been put under the spotlight, so too have the manufacturers who supply them. Consumers now want to know exactly where their food is sourced from and precisely what goes into it – a trend that looks set to grow. 

How important is traceability in food and beverage manufacturing?
A recent study by Mintel found that the number of British consumers who are now buying local, British produce has risen significantly in the wake of the recent food scandals. Of those surveyed, 14% stated that traceability was now an important part of their purchasing decision, in comparison to just 6% at the end of 2012. Manufacturers need to recognise the need for thorough and sophisticated traceability processes to provide consumers with the information they demand. Consumer’s health – as well as manufacturer reputation – is too important to take even the slightest of risks with and there is now even more of a focus on how our food is processed. 

What problems can arise if traceability isn’t given due attention?
We need only look at the horsemeat scandals of 2013 to see what can happen when traceability isn’t taken as seriously as it perhaps should be. Once the presence of horsemeat was discovered in ‘beef’ products, how and where the meat was sourced by manufacturers became an issue, and their traceability capabilities were thrust into the spotlight. 

If traceability isn’t addressed properly, reputations can be damaged through negative press, and in some cases, manufacturers or specific products are boycotted, which, after a long period of economic recession, is something UK manufacturers can’t afford. What’s more, consumer health and safety is also put at risk which could have severe – even fatal – consequences.

To give traceability the attention it needs, manufacturers need to take a holistic view of their entire processing plant. Can a process be automated to help reduce the risk of contamination? How can I ensure that end-users are happy with the overall product and be confident that we can provide them with a fully traceable item? It may seem like a daunting prospect for manufacturers to keep track of every detail of the food supply chain – from acquiring the raw materials, through processing to supply. The way manufacturing plants are set up in the UK, with several different processes running in situ, means many suffer from information overload, due to the sheer volume of data their processes produce on a daily basis. Trying to digest this data is where the issue lies.

What solutions does Schneider Electric provide for traceability in food manufacturing?
Data – or adding a layer of software to systems – is the answer to this dilemma. Digitalising processes enables food manufacturers to collect data at each step, which can generate corrective actions quickly. By providing plant operators with this level of detail, they can swiftly identify any defective product batches and recall them. Once the issue has been dealt with, manufacturers can then trace back to the cause of the problem, helping them to avoid the situation in the future. 

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