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Optimizing the Food Supply

For more than 50 years, Denmark has used IBM technology to centralize and process data to optimize the yields and quality of its dairy and meat cattle. In the 1950s, Danish farmers would record their dairy yields on punched cards, which were tabulated monthly on IBM equipment. In the 1970s, the system was upgraded to optical recognition readers, an IBM ® System/370 main processor and printers. Today, data related to 1.2 million Danish cows is captured daily through radio frequency identification (RFID) tags, handheld devices and robots, and fed into a database, managed by IBM Power ® 700 servers. Thanks to this sophisticated cattle tracking system, Denmark is a leading exporter of food products, and was one of the few countries allowed to export beef to Japan during the European mad cow (BSE or bovine spongiform encephalopathy) epidemic in 2003.

From a central database to a system-wide view

For years, much of our food came from local sources. Today, the food industry is much more global, with a complex web of participants. It faces challenges of sustainability, higher prices, shortages and safety. At the same time, with advances in technology—smart sensors, analytics and mobile capabilities—there is the opportunity to make our food chain smarter, providing stakeholders with visibility into every point of their system, from seed to fork. Today, a food traceability solution may begin with a central database, similar to Denmark’s cattle registry, but it can extend throughout the collection, transportation, processing, wholesaling and retailing phases of the food chain.

Enlisting all stakeholders

Food traceability is an issue that spans both public and private sectors—in 2009, IBM convened summits in both the U.S. and Australia, bringing together key stakeholders from government and the food industry to identify issues; promote common technology and industry standards; and develop models and pilot plans. At the city level, IBM developed a detailed smarter food chain for Vietnam’s second largest metropolitan area, Ho Chi Minh City.

In January of 2011, the U.S. Government passed the Food Safety Modernization Act, giving the FDA the mandate to implement a science-based system for producing, processing, transporting and preparing foods in ways that maximize safety. According to FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D., the bill lays the foundation for a prevention-based, 21st century food safety system that makes everyone in the global food chain responsible for safety. The bill covers inspections, recalls, safe harvesting of fruits and vegetables and preventive controls.

Transforming food chains around the world

IBM is working with a variety of clients to help make their food chains smarter. This year, IBM and IBM Business Partner, FXA, a producer of traceability solutions, have two pilot programs in Asia:

Vietnam, one of the top ten largest seafood producers in the world, is experimenting with technology to track seafood exports. Organizations will be able to collect critical data about each batch of fish and other seafood—including the originating farm where it was processed, current location and temperature—and make it available to all parties. Frozen fish will be traceable using serial numbers.

Thailand's Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives initiative will enable all participants in the food supply chain to access critical information on agricultural exports. With the project, the Thai Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives becomes the first agency to adopt and host the EPCIS global standard for food traceability for many of its farmers and food producers. The pilot will start tracking mangoes and chickens for export, and have the capability to share the detailed information with any trading partners.

In Europe, Matiq, the IT subsidiary of Nortura, the largest food manufacturer in Norway, worked with IBM in 2009 to build an RFID-based framework so grocers and manufacturers can view the history of a product at the "batch" level and react quickly to problems, “surgically” removing them from the shelf rather than launching expensive, wasteful recalls.

In Manitoba, Canada, IBM consultants implemented a livestock premises identification solution that builds the foundation for a province-wide food traceability system. It provides the ability to analyze risks from animal-to-animal exposure and reduce the disease control cycle. The solution was instrumental in helping locate and isolate an avian influenza outbreak on a turkey farm.

Advancing food traceability with a first-of-a-kind IBM Research project

Many food chains are highly complex, expensive and therefore impractical to completely instrument. For example, a can of chicken noodle soup represents the end product of a number of different upstream supply chains. For addressing such complexities, IBM Research is undertaking a first-of-a-kind project that explores advancing the current state of traceability. The solution collects streams of data generated throughout the supply chain, combining basic “event” data, such as date of picking, and “condition” data such as temperature and humidity during transportation, storage and processing.

“By applying analytics to these data streams, we can ‘infer’ what happened where and recreate a trace history without actually instrumenting more things,” explains Mary Helander, the IBM researcher leading the project. “This trace history can also be used to optimize the food chain… revealing problems that occur during shipping and processing.”

The computing is done in a cloud environment and may include IBM Cognos ® analytics software and Watson Implosion Technology, which solves a class of resource-constrained production planning problems.