Farm to table, safely

The U.S. has a very safe food supply chain when compared against many other parts of the world, but it’s a credit to the owners of that supply chain that improvement is an ever-present goal. In particular, three advancements stand out in having contributed immensely to overall safety in recent years: unparalleled visibility into the supply chain, groundbreaking developments in the ability to spot contaminants, and new technologies to prevent contamination entirely and fight it where it exists.

Today, the various participants in the supply chain have clear visibility into the status of their products, and this visibility has helped create an ownership mentality that holds each individual company accountable to a problem — no matter where that problem is identified. In other words, whether contamination is found during transport of a finished good from one area to another or it’s noticed by a consumer plucking a product off store shelves, all the different supply chain participants can be vigilant about digging into their operations to find the source and root out additional contaminants.

The second advancement, a decrease in the time and money necessary to identify contaminants, gives organizations the ability to mitigate contamination as soon as it appears. Contamination will never be 100 per cent avoidable, but decreasing it by even small amounts early on has compounding benefits because it prevents the problem from spreading and becoming much more catastrophic downstream.

Perhaps the best news is that sustainable technologies have been developed to treat contamination without many of the downsides that used to be unavoidable. Chemical treatments, for example, are effective but potentially dangerous to consumer health, and removing every trace of chemicals from a treated product is usually impossible or impractical. Heat is thought to be safer from that standpoint, but it has its own set of issues, and most things can be treated with heat only a limited number of times before the process begins to compromise the integrity of the product.

Steering the supply chain toward improvement
The twin pillars of value and safety are key forces driving future supply chain advancements and improvements. Companies in meat production, for example, are especially interested in reducing the use of antibiotics in feed and chemicals in the cleaning of meat and sanitization of processing facilities to create a safer end product. Some researchers are even looking at inoculating grains with specialized microbes that have a beneficial impact on livestock gut health.

The Food Safety Modernization Act, which aims to strengthen requirements around safety with a focus on preventing foodborne illnesses instead of responding more efficiently, is another step in the right direction. Improved testing and traceability, the latter of which is being enabled by blockchain technology, also offer exciting potential, and all of these safety innovations have the added benefit of preserving value and increasing sustainability by reducing waste.

Despite a host of positive developments (many of them fairly recent), there’s still plenty of room for improvement in the food supply chain. For participants of any type and at any stage, these three steps will remain critical to creating a safer supply chain anywhere in the world.

1. Focus on early mitigation
Consumers want clean, safe food products, which is why it’s imperative for producers to detect contamination as early as possible in the supply chain. When microbial and mycotoxin contamination is found quickly and mitigated effectively through either removal or corrective processes, it’s less likely to spread contamination to clean food further down the chain. This isolation protects the investment of the company in the next stage of the supply chain, but it also preserves total industry value and lessens the overall environmental impact of the food industry by reducing unnecessary waste.

2. Test and treat as often as possible
Companies at each link in the supply chain must take responsibility for testing the products in their care. Just because a grain farmer treats silos of grain prior to the sale of the product doesn’t mean the commodity will make it to a cattle rancher free of contamination. Before the grain is fed to cattle, it should be tested again and treated if necessary, because those are the animals that will end up packaged on grocery store shelves. Testing at each point in the supply chain also makes it easier to pinpoint the source of contamination, ensuring that suppliers know which processors they can trust to handle their products safely. If contamination is absent in one link but regularly appearing in the next, that operation has a clear problem that needs to be addressed.

3. Understand that contamination saps value from every supply chain participant
Just because a commodity makes it past a certain link in the supply chain doesn’t mean contamination’s negative impacts are isolated to the participants downstream. Imagine a farmer who sells uncontaminated grain to a processor to be turned into feed. When the processor’s supply becomes contaminated, the cattle rancher buying the feed will want to pay a lower price, reducing the amount the processor is able to reinvest in purchasing grain the following season. As profits are siphoned away from the industry as a whole, the profit is diminished for each link in a supply chain.

As the U.S. and our export markets begin to implement more stringent food safety requirements, these needs are intersecting with growing consumer demand for a reduction in carbon and widespread improvements in sustainability. Improving the safety of the supply chain and driving a reduction in food waste are at the core of this technology, and our hope is to continue revolutionizing the sanitization process food goes through on its way from farm to table.

NanoGuard Technologies
Larry Clarke is CEO of NanoGuard Technologies. Technologies such as NanoGuard’s Airilization, which uses energized air to eradicate harmful pathogens, are particularly useful because they can be implemented at multiple points in the supply chain and because additional treatments have very few negative impacts. What Airilization and other advancements offer is preservation of both value and safety in the supply chain as food makes its way to the consumer.
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