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Internet of Things: Food safety apps set to emerge

Food safety could emerge as a key application for the Internet of Things in the coming months, providing real-time visibility in the vast food supply chain.

To get a sense how the Internet of Things, food and complex supply chains fit together, consider this pre-IoT scenario:

On September 8, 2006, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) began receiving reports of E. coli infections in patients and, within a few days, the cases were associated with fresh spinach consumption.

Michael Coene, executive advisor, Booz Allen HamiltonMichael Coene

Eventually, the E. coli outbreak surfaced in 26 states, resulting in more than 100 hospitalizations and three deaths. Michael Coene, executive advisor at Booz Allen Hamilton, worked as a senior software engineer at FDA at the time of the E. coli outbreak and eventually became deputy CIO and CTO at the agency. As CTO, Coene spent time exploring food safety, specifically focusing on egg inspection following a massive egg recall amid a Salmonella outbreak in 2010.

During such foodborne outbreaks, getting the word out to consumers can take place at Internet speed. Coene said the FDA did a good job of telling the public to stop eating spinach via social media and the national news. FDA and CDC issued "nearly three weeks of daily consumer alerts," according to a Congressional Research Service (CRS) report, Food Safety: Federal and State Response to the Spinach E. coli Outbreak.

The challenge, Coene said, was in determining the source of the contaminated spinach -- pinpointing the affected batches and the fields they came from. "How do you get that information? Back in the early 2000s, it was scientists tracing it back," Coene explained.

During the 2006 E. coli outbreak, state and federal investigators took about four days to zero in on bagged fresh spinach as the likely culprit and two weeks to narrow the inquiry to three California counties, according to the CRS report. Three weeks from the first reports of the outbreak, the FDA announced the implicated spinach was traced to a particular vegetable supplier, the report noted.

The track and trace process, however, would have gone much faster had IoT been in place, Coene suggested. Greens and food packaging tagged with sensors, such as radio-frequency identification (RFID) transponders, and linked to a supply chain-spanning network, would have let investigators quickly trace the impacted produce to fields, packaging companies and stores.

That vision of IoT entwined with food safety is at the cusp of becoming a lot more than wishful thinking. Consider the following:

  • China got the jump on IoT and food safety in 2011, launching its Agriculture Internet of Things and Food Safety and Quality project. In 2015, Chinese researchers called IoT in food supply chains "one of the promising killer applications" and published a paper describing an IoT architecture in this field.
  • In September, Cisco and pasta maker Barilla Group announced an IoT-driven Safety for Food initiative that lets consumers scan QR codes on packaging to obtain information on the specific production batch.
  • The European Commission later this year plans to embark on a large-scale pilot project involving IoT, farming and food safety

Internet of Things: Food safety applications

Where does IoT fit into the food supply chain? Coene breaks the system down into three parts: from farmers' fields to processing plants, from processing plants to stores and from stores to consumers.

"IoT can play in each space," Coene said.

Stephen Mellor, CTO, Industrial Internet ConsortiumStephen Mellor

Stephen Mellor, CTO for the Industrial Internet Consortium, which operates as a group of the Object Management Group, said the very scale of the food supply chain introduces problems. Delays in food shipments along the chain, for example, can lead to spoilage, which creates food safety issues.

"The supply chain, from farm to fork, is quite long," he said.

Thibaut Kleiner, head of Unit Network Technologies, DG CONNECT, at the European Commission, calls IoT "a game changer." He said the technology makes it possible to install sensors that permit information gathering across the full value chain, from production to transport to processing. This information gathering, in turn, provides better information along each step of the value chain as well complete information on food safety, which Kleiner said was not possible before.

IoT, he added, opens the possibility of guaranteeing the quality of food.

Thibaut Kleiner, head of Unit Network Technologies, DG CONNECT, at the European CommissionThibaut Kleiner

"Machines don't lie, don't sleep, don't cheat when they tell you that a certain food has been corrupted," he said. "This brings food safety to a whole new level of transparency."

The European Commission in October 2015 called for proposals for large-scale IoT pilot projects, one of which will focus on smart farming and food security. Among other things, the commissions will look for proposals that let consumers "access trustworthy traceability information throughout the whole food chain."

Kleiner said the call for proposals closes in April 2016. Evaluations will follow with projects expected to start in December of this year, he noted.

In addition, the European Commission's Alliance for Internet of Things Innovation includes a smart farming and food security working group, which Kleiner said has around 300 members.

While the European project specifically calls for IoT, the term isn't necessarily at the tip of the tongue of the typical food supply chain participant.

Roger Woehl, CTO, SafetyChain SoftwareRoger Woehl

Roger Woehl, CTO at SafetyChain Software, a vendor of food safety and quality assurance automation offerings, said the IoT phrase isn't particularly prevalent among his company's customers. He said customers more frequently use "device connectivity" to describe what are essentially IoT applications. Woehl, however, said he expects IoT to become more mainstream next year.

In the meantime, one SafetyChain customer is already using network-connected temperature sensors to keep tabs on food safety. A cooling unit in the produce packing facility sends out a real-time alert if the unit suddenly stops working, Woehl said. The facility can take corrective action before an out-of-spec temperate change results in spoiled food.

Applications of this sort go beyond track-and-trace systems, which can help respond to emergencies, to a more proactive use of IoT. IoT food safety applications can advance RFID tracking, over time, by incorporating data from other sources such as temperature sensors and high-end sensors using photoacoustic spectroscopy. "We're now moving into a mode where they can, in real-time, identify the problem," Woehl said.

The next step, he said, is to deploy the technology in a predictive mode -- flagging areas where a problem is likely to occur. First, the industry will need to "have enough data collected and stored and managed, so we can apply machine learning … and big data analytics methods," Woehl said.

Obstacles for the Internet of Things, food safety

While the future seems to point to broad IoT applications in food safety, there are a few obstacles in the technology's path. But technology may not be one of them, according to industry executives.

Kleiner said the initial lessons he's gleaned from early forays into IoT and food safety is that "the potential is real and the technology is, to a large extent, mature."

Cost is one inhibitor, however. While sensor costs have declined, the infrastructure required to read the sensors will prove the greater expense, Coene said.

"The cost dimension of adopting the technology in a systemic manner and whether you can make a return on investment is a real issue," Kleiner added.

He said that's why the European Commission is pushing for experimentation at scale -- with actual users -- to help demonstrate "what the commercial exploitation of these IoT technologies may mean."

Data collection and CIO role

The challenge in Coene's view is to sell industry on the idea that collecting data across the food supply chain can result in financial gain. He cited the example of the 2006 E. coli outbreak: the entire spinach industry was shut down during the search for the contamination source. A quicker investigation, with IoT support, would have provided the industry an economic benefit, Coene said.

Integration represents another hurdle and one that may ultimately involve CIOs.

At the front end, farmers would need to incorporate IoT sensors -- no small feat given the number of farms worldwide, many of which are small growers. A top-down approach may be employed here. Coene suggested that food packagers could provide location-aware bags and boxes to the farms they work with, for instance.

And on the back end, where the gathered data filters into enterprise systems within food production firms, CIOs may find themselves with a systems integration task. Woehl said enterprise resource planning and supply chain automation systems may need to be integrated into IoT technology to provide a broader perspective on food safety. In addition, CIOs could play a role in devising a reporting strategy to get the most insight out of the food safety data.

Woehl described the CIO's task as "identifying the right integration strategy and the right reporting strategy to make it actionable to the business."

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