Restoring Confidence in the Food Chain

By Mark Roberti

A 22 percent drop in peanut butter sales, caused by an outbreak of salmonella, reveals just how exposed companies are to risks, and how quickly consumers can lose faith in the supply chain's ability to provide safe food products.


Last week, sales figures compiled by market research firm The Nielsen Co. indicated sales of jarred peanut butter for the four weeks that ended on Jan. 24 fell by 22 percent in the United States, compared with the same four weeks one year prior. The reason? Shoppers are concerned about the safety of such products, even though familiar brands, such as Jif and Skippy, have not been affected by the recent outbreak, which has sickened more than 550 people and may have caused eight deaths.

Federal investigators traced the outbreak to peanut butter manufactured at Peanut Corp. of America‘s southwest Georgia peanut processing plant. Most of that peanut butter is sold to food services companies that supply schools, hospitals and the like—it is not used in food sold off the shelf. But here’s the thing: Many consumers don’t care. They aren’t taking chances, because there have been too many problems already, and too many reassurances that things were OK when they weren’t.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that food-borne diseases cause approximately 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths in the United States every year. That number is likely to rise as the food supply chain grows ever more complex and the government’s resources for inspection decrease. So what can be done?

Some members of the U.S. Congress are pushing for tighter regulation and track-and-trace requirements. Food producers are opposed to this idea, believing it will drive up food costs and hurt sales. Consumers want safer food, but that doesn’t mean they necessarily want to pay for it.

One way forward would be to take a small portion of the stimulus money coming out of Washington to create joint government-private sector pilot projects, to determine how best to use such technologies as serialized bar codes, RFID and GPS to better track individual food shipments so they could be quickly traced and recalled if necessary. I’m sure companies would line up to participate in government-funded research projects, even if they had to kick in some money themselves.

The government could set up a central database with the appropriate security controls to allow companies to share shipments data, as well as record the movements of goods through the supply chain. A lot of work has already been conducted in this area. Jean Pierre Emond, co-director of the University of Florida’s Center for Food Distribution and Retailing, has worked on a number of projects in this area with Publix Super Markets, Del Monte Fresh Produce and others.

A government-backed effort, similar to the BRIDGE project funded by the Europe Union (see BRIDGE Project Members Press Ahead and BRIDGE Expects to Launch Five European RFID Pilots This Fall), could point the way for industry adoption. The goal would be to determine an approach to implementing a national track-and-trace system using a variety of technologies that would both protect the public and provide benefits to companies using the system.

Collecting information regarding the movement of goods is labor-intensive and expensive, because people must be employed to manually scan bar codes or record serial numbers with pencil and paper. RFID would enable companies to collect the data automatically, thereby reducing labor costs. The cost of the RFID tag would initially be an inhibitor, but the government could jump-start adoption by helping to fund the deployment. As RFID technology is more widely used, tag costs would come down and benefits would rise, making it economically feasible for companies to deploy a track-and-trace system.

If companies and the government fail to act now, there is a chance an incident will cause the deaths of enough people that governments will mandate a track-and-trace system that imposes onerous data-collection burdens on firms without delivering additional supply chain benefits. That would be very unfortunate for consumers—and for businesses as well.

Mark Roberti is the founder and editor of RFID Journal. If you would like to comment on this article, click on the link below. To read more of Mark’s opinions, visit the RFID Journal Blog or click here.