Track and trace from farm to fork

04 July 2016

Robert Brooks examines how automation in the food and beverage production supply chain can help to deliver increased visibility and traceability.

High profile product recalls, greater emphasis on food safety and increasing consumer demand are driving the need for improved product marking within the food and beverage industry. Consumers want to be better informed about what they consume. Sell by and use by dates are no longer sufficient. Today there is legislation that requires information on allergens, nutritional value, producer details and country of origin, for example.

To help meet the requirements of all stakeholders within the supply chain – from farm to fork – there has been a move towards standardisation in the way information on food and drink packaging is presented, supplemented by legislation to ensure absolute traceability through the supply chain. With many associations and pressure groups having influence in the food industry, track and trace requirements will only become more stringent.

The European Food Information to Consumers Regulation No 1169/2011 (FIC) brings together EU rules on general food labelling and nutrition labelling into a single piece of legislation. The majority of requirements of the new legislation applied to pre-packed foods from December 2014, with mandatory nutrition declarations for most pre-packed foods coming into force on 13 December 2016. New rules on country of origin information for meat from sheep, pigs, goats and poultry have applied from April 2015. Topics covered by these regulations include dates of freezing of meat, compositional standards for minced meat, water content, caffeine content and even font sizes for labelling.

Surprisingly, once a product leaves the producer, there are no prescribed standards, either in terms of information you need to share or how you share it. Here, the onus is on each individual company to have the necessary information to share with the relevant bodies if something goes wrong and manufacturers should be looking to automation for cost effective, flexible and secure solutions to these traceability issues.

GS1 standards provide a wider framework for supply chain visibility and are steadily being adopted by the food and beverage industry to offer recognised framework for supply chain visibility and product traceability. GS1 provides standards for identifying items, locations, shipments, assets and associated information, as well as enabling data to be shared between the different parties in the supply chain. GS1 and other standards impose a requirement to print human and/or machine-readable codes on the product’s packaging, including alphanumeric codes, as well as 1D and 2D codes. There are important differences between these printed codes, in terms of what information they can convey, what standards they meet, and where the data is intended to be used – from factory internal processes all the way to the retailer and the consumer.

Addressing inline detection
Integrating process controllers and vision equipment directly into the real-time network can help to automate inspection tasks which, currently, are carried out by human operators. Modern production processes cannot rely on manual product inspection, so the printed alphanumeric codes need to be machine readable, to enable automated inspection systems to check that the mark is present, readable and correct.

Automated systems can now also manage shape recognition as well as handling in-factory quality measurements prior to packaging, and checking that the right pack and the right label are matched with the product itself. This can be done with a single system accessible via a single interface. Adding further inspection tasks is also significantly simplified which helps increase flexibility.

Modules within automated machines can rapidly self-configure, including the necessary automatic hardware definition, consistency checks and automatic initialisation. In this way, they have the flexibility required to adapt inspection to different sizes, containers and marketing programmes eliminating the risk of human error.

Total cost of ownership
Price pressure in the food and beverage sector is also a significant hurdle. While a part-cost reduction is a common approach, manufacturers are at risk of the consequences of errors, as a retailer will clear shelves and will charge and fine the perpetrator. This highlights the need to evaluate the overall task and measure the cost improvements, taking Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) into consideration.

TCO is a management accounting concept intended to help buyers and owners determine all the direct and indirect costs of a product or system. It goes beyond the initial manufacturing cycle time and cost to produce food or to make parts. It can, for example, include an estimate of the relative risk of alternative strategies, such as poor reliability, or the hidden costs of doing business overseas. Automation systems are key to a TCO approach, as a successfully implemented system will add to reliability and product traceability.

Robert Brooks is european industry marketing manager, Food & Beverage at Omron.

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