On track with IT
Published:  19 March, 2010

There was a time the days when the word 'chips' was mostly associated with fish when keeping track of livestock or a meat product was a case of creating an extremely long paper trail.

Nowadays, traceability is an almost paperless world of sound and vision, employing image data capture, radio frequency identification (RFID), wireless communications, smart-cards and yes chips, but of the electronic kind.

Such sophisticated systems can simplify stock control and traceability to the point where, for example, hundreds of bar codes can be read with 100% accuracy in a few seconds. Technological sophistication can come at a significant cost, of course, but meat manufacturers should look beyond the immediate financial commitment to appreciate the real competitive benefits that such systems can bring, according to leading systems developers.

Traceability has been a priority for meat manufacturers for at least the past 25 years and has been ratcheted up in importance with each succeeding BSE, foot-and-mouth, salmonella and e-coli crisis. It has also been a source of debate within the wider food industry, since the EU introduced the General Food Law in 2005. This outlines the legal requirement for food business operators (FBOs) to follow food back along and forward on through the supply chain so-called "one up and one down" traceability.

Yet while most do comply with this requirement, there is a need for greater industry awareness of the benefits that wider traceability across the supply chain can bring, says James Hannay, senior vice-president for Northern Europe at Zetes, a pan-European specialist in automatic identification systems. In February, the company won a contract to install wireless IT infrastructures for five of Morrisons' UK manufacturing plants. It has also installed systems at Tesco and at Campofrío, an international food and nutrition group and a leader in Spain's meat products market, with industrial plants in Spain, Portugal, Romania and Russia.

All too frequently, traceability is regarded negatively as a cost and compliance issue, rather than how it should really be regarded, as a source of competitive advantage and opportunity, says Hannay. Traceability does have a cost implication, but the return on investment is fast and the added value it brings will sustain a business for the future, long after the initial outlay has been recouped, he insists. For producers of premium products, traceability offers a means to really substantiate any claims made, guaranteeing authenticity and quality to the consumer.

Efficiency advantage

While improving traceability will go a long way towards achieving the typical goals of improved quality and safety, it will also improve efficiency, it is claimed. This can be through reduced wastage, as a result of better shelf-life management, which in turn can also enable reduced inventory levels.

The company is now installing a wireless IT infrastructure in five of Morrisons' UK manufacturing facilities, based in Yorkshire, Northampton and Cheshire. The contract, which includes design, implementation and support of a Cisco wireless infrastructure with mobile devices, valued at over £1.5m, is being deployed in partnership with Computacenter and is part of Morrisons' ongoing investment into upgrading IT capabilities across the organisation. The wireless network will enable the supermarket's current, predominantly paper-based processes and information systems to become more accurate and automated, paving the way for future operational improvements. Last year, Morrisons spent £6m with Zetes to introduce voice-directed picking into all its warehouses. This latest project will enable its manufacturing centres to benefit from real-time information once the company's Oracle eBiz ERP system is introduced. Zetes supplied professional services consultancy to design the Cisco wireless network and oversee the implementation, which has just begun. The company is also supplying and supporting all the mobile devices required within Morrisons' manufacturing estate, including advanced handheld terminals with keyboards specially customised for Morrisons, Zetes' own IND 2475 truck-mounted terminals, extended-range scanners and label printers. Following a successful pilot project, completed in October 2009, the full implementation programme began in February this year and is due for completion in September.

One European food supplier has cut its wastage levels by 10% by using better traceability technology. This works in a number of ways. Many supermarket shoppers go to the back of the shelf to get the product with the longest sell-by date. This is a huge problem for retailers and frequently means selling near-to-expiry-date products at discounted rates too often. By introducing a traceability system, stock nearing its sell-by-date is automatically selected first for display on shelves, leaving the longer shelf-life products behind in the back-of-store area. And there are other benefits to having such information. Storage temperatures of fresh products can be recorded throughout the supply chain and, should a shipment be likely to spoil quickly, it can be rejected immediately or sold off first.

Another area where traceability can benefit is by storing information relating to potential contaminants during distribution, which could affect the end-quality of the product, and then linking this to product batch numbers.

Brave new world

While sophisticated traceability systems are mainly used at the moment for more efficient production methods and back-of-retail store stock control, Pascal Durdu, of Zetes' innovations and business solutions division, says shoppers will one day lock on to the benefits. The time is not far off when consumers will be able to access supply chain information on the food they buy via screens in supermarkets, he says. Consumer demand for more information will continue to grow and the technology to provide virtually full traceability is already available. All it is likely to take is a retailer, driven by consumer demand, to hook up with a supply chain and put all the technology together into one system.

Zetes launched two traceability systems that are likely to feature in this brave new world Visidot and ePOD at logistics exhibition Logistics Link South in February. Visidot is an image-based data-capture solution for multiple asset tracking and is claimed to be a very powerful, reliable and cost-effective alternative to RFID. The solution is capable of identifying hundreds of bar codes in only a few seconds, with 100% accuracy. Visidot can also detect wrong and missing labels, storing digital images for improved quality assurance and is said to have error-free shipping verification.

Applications include outbound shipping verification, inbound scan-to-stock, production sequencing and verification, pallet verification, dock-to-door loading verification, process quality assurance, and reusable plastic container traceability. The system is relatively new to the UK and is not yet operational in any meat plants, but it has already been installed at Seachill, now part of the Icelandic Group, one of the UK's leading fresh fish processors. The technology has been introduced to comply with Tesco's advance shipping notification requirements and, according to Zetes, could be equally successful in dealing with meat products.

Steve Wallace, IT manager at SeaChill, says: "Having already helped us reduce order lead times, Visidot now also enables us to comply with Tesco's stringent shipping notification requirements, while increasing efficiency and assuring 200% shipping accuracy."

As well as claimed accuracy, speed and reliability, the system is said to decode all captured tags, regardless of location and orientation, plus detect products with missing or non-readable tags, a marked benefit compared with RFID, which cannot alert a user to missed items.

Other benefits are said to be the system's ability to precisely locate specific items, its use of existing tags and its ability to connect with other technologies, including WMS/ERP, conveyors, shrink-wrap machines and printers.

Also launched at the exhibition was ePOD, literally translated as electronic proof of delivery. The new system is claimed to deliver track-and-trace goods information to businesses that do not want to develop complicated interfaces between systems or implement complex solutions to prevent delivery mistakes. As such, ePOD is designed, says Zetes, to ensure that the right goods are being delivered to the right place at the right time, and is based on a technology innovation that combines RFID, wireless communication and smart-card technology. The ePOD system has already been deployed successfully within many organisations, including Hendersons (Spar), IKEA and the social housing charity Respond.

The Smart ePOD solution removes the need for a PDA by putting the technology at point of receipt and using smart-cards. By providing an electronic equivalent of physical proof of delivery, ePOD reduces the frequency of costly loss claims, because physical proof exists that goods have been delivered. This is achieved through RFID tags being read inside the receiving area, with confirmation stored either locally on the smart-card, in the terminal or remotely within a database. It also offers a number of other benefits, including reduced mistakes because the ePOD terminal will notify the carrier if the wrong goods are unloaded and offers the ability to track assets being returned by recording information on a smart-card.

Weigh and trace

Meanwhile, Stevens Weighing Group says its Vantage-branded traceability and weighing system is flexible for adaptation to different businesses and provides butchers with simple-to-use traceability on the processing shop floor. Among the plants using the system are Croesllan Catering Butchers in Wales and British Premium Meats. As well as providing precision weighing of goods, the system can accurately trace products through the production process, using real-time data. The system is currently tracking more than 600 catering lines at one plant and linking the movement of products to a distribution centre in another location. Furthermore, each of the areas producing red meat, poultry and cooked meat has its own traceability system, checking goods-in, processing and goods-out. Raw stock is checked-in against an order number and allocated a stock number and bar code that incorporates all the information needed to comply with Defra labelling legislation. In the production areas, information is sent electronically, requesting stock to be released, and stock levels are automatically adjusted. Scheduled orders are sent electronically to the processing departments. The system can also track primal cuts and the meat when it is cut into portions.

Stevens' commercial manager Toby Hawkins says butchers from different countries can easily use the system, as it can be programmed to any language. There are 1,400 options to tailor the system to different production scenarios and, so far, it has been installed into some 1,000 food manuacturing sites worldwide.

Animals on track

With high numbers of livestock going through abattoirs at any one time it can be difficult to keep track of individual animals if any part of the process is a paper-based system. Food chain information continues to be a key element in the whole chain approach to food safety controls. Inspection results can also provide valuable information to farmers, feedback that is now claimed to be simpler and easier with a new Veterinary Data Collection system from Systems Integration. The system is said to satisfy producers that post-mortem information is both accurate and consistent. Scotland-based processor A K Stoddart is the first company to install the system. Operations director John Craig says: "We are now 100% sure that the MHS health information gathered is accurately attributable to the animal, over and beyond the correct batch, which is required by law. Our producers can benchmark the performance of healthy animals against those that may have had health issues such as fluke, which has been a massive problem in our area."

The system was installed over two days with no down-time. It can generate several reports for data analysis, which can be viewed on screen, printed out, exported to different formats or even set to be run automatically and delivered to email recipients. MHS staff were able to use the system within minutes of being instructed. Craig says: "The provision of more accurate data will only enhance our already strong relationship with our producers."




getting smart on technology


Many organisations have systems in place to track products through individual parts of the supply chain, but lack a joined-up approach and fail to share the information gathered. Slowly, this is changing, as producers and retailers work together to identify simple, yet highly effective solutions to capture and share product information. And this is occurring within companies of all sizes.
In Portugal, one supermarket chain is working with its small local farmers to exchange data within the supply chain using a smart-card system linked to a simple PC application; product details, including date, quality and location, are recorded by the farmer using the smart-card, which is then dispatched with the products to the retailer. Once at the store, the information is automatically captured from the card reader and stored within the central stock management system.
Other more sophisticated systems will combine the use of smart-cards with RFID readers to capture this information and, in some cases, a GSM antenna will communicate this information directly to another interested party, for example informing them in advance when products are dispatched or if storage temperatures rise beyond permitted levels, warning of the need to shift a particular shipment more quickly.




international trend


The Norwegian government is supporting its food industry's aim to become the European leader in advanced traceability systems that really do span from farm to fork. For instance, one pioneering local lamb producer has implemented a system that allows the consumer to trace its organic meat products to the field in which the animal has grazed on organic grass. At the supermarket, joints are labelled with a 2D bar code and shoppers can use their mobile phones to trace the journey each joint has made to the supermarket shelf. As an example of true farm-to-fork traceability, the only information missing in the chain is how it is ultimately cooked and consumed. The benefits to the producer and everyone else in this supply chain is that this clearly differentiates and authenticates their brand, which in turn justifies their premium prices and also gives them an opportunity to further improve their supply chain processes.
The adoption of such techniques is expanding from Europe to Asia, with a new initiative by the Vietnamese government to trace its prawn and shrimp exports.