A lot on your plate

Jan. 1, 2009
As a general rule, most of us don't worry much about the safety of eating every pickle and chip, each salad and crust

A s a general rule, most of us don't worry much about the safety of eating every pickle and chip, each salad and crust. At home or away, we graze unfazed on food from around the globe. There is asparagus from Peru, coffee from Africa and farm-raised shrimp from Bangladesh. Ginger makes its way from China to meet up with onions and peppers from Mexico in a tasty stir fry with lamb from New Zealand. Although our dinner may have traveled farther than we will in a lifetime, it goes unremarked.

One reason we don't usually have to be concerned is because so many others have been doing the fussing for us, watching over temperatures and worrying about contamination (accidental or intentional). Motor carriers involved in the transport of food, however, may find still more responsibilities on their plates in the future as regulatory agencies, farmers and other food providers consider policies and procedures to better safeguard the nation's groceries from point of origin to point of sale.

At the International Summit on Agriculture and Food Transportation last month, for example, Homaira Akbari, CEO of SkyBitz, made a presentation called “Agriculture and Food Safety & Security through Intelligent Asset Management.” In it, she outlined some of the considerable challenges along the global food chain and the technologies available to help food handlers and transporters provide better end-to-end visibility and control.

With globalization, food supply chains, food transportation and transshipment are becoming more complex and more vulnerable, Akbari explained. In a typical international food chain, food may move by truck to marine vessel, to rail and back to truck again before reaching its final destination, passing through processing plants, ports and warehouse facilities along the way.

There are so many transfers, so many opportunities for things to go wrong, from insufficiently precooled trailers at loading to lack of cargo control en route. According to Akbari, 33% of all perishable food is wasted during transport, costing about $35 billion annually.

One solution then is to let technology help backstop human food handlers and transporters by doing some of the things even the best-intended drivers can't do 24/7 alone. Akbari recommended combining three types of technologies to help get the job done: sensing technologies to monitor the cargo, real-time remote tracking and monitoring of the load and its container or trailer, and real-time control technologies.

Making all this work together, she said, would not only involve a wide variety of remote sensors, it would also require asset management tools to set operating procedures and to achieve an integrated supply chain, with visibility and accountability all along the way.

Marianne Elbertson, senior food defense analyst, Office of Food Defense & Emergency Response, Food Safety Inspection Service of the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, presented similar suggestions in her recent presentation on food security. Examples of industry countermeasures for food terrorism and tampering included enhancing cargo security with tamper-evident seals on all trucks, tankers and shipping containers, and ensuring “proper tracking of movement of product and ingredients.”

It is a tall order certainly, and it could be a costly one for some fleets already counting profits in pennies per mile. The stakes are high too, however. The good news is that the technologies required exist today; food transporters have already deployed many of these solutions; and there is a strong ROI case to be made based upon the benefits that end-to-end visibility and control can bring to carriers and shippers alike. Perhaps, in this instance, we can all have our cake and eat it too.

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