Last reviewed 12 September 2012

Following the recent introduction of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) in the USA, Dr John Ryan discusses the implications of the Act on European supply chains and how the new legislation is an opportunity for overall improvement in quality of service.

Introduction

According to the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, around 50 million people suffer from illness each year in the USA — resulting in 130,000 hospitalisations and 3000 deaths — due to food-borne diseases. To clamp down on these alarming statistics, in January 2011 President Obama signed into law the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) as proposed by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The passing of this Act will not only affect the way US supply chains operate, it will also have a fundamental impact on importers and exporters worldwide who do business with the USA.

The FSMA has been specifically designed to protect public health by focusing on the prevention of food safety issues, improving traceability and putting the spotlight on managerial and quality control processes of all supply chains going into America. This has caused disruption worldwide as, for the first time in history, there is now a requirement for tracking solutions and visibility throughout every stage of the supply chain in order to avoid being sanctioned by the one rule for transgressors: if it does not comply, it does not come in.

Although the FSMA could quickly be viewed as the “stone in the shoe” for an exporter, it could also be the perfect opportunity to revise and streamline every stage of the supply chain, reducing product wastage, pointing out the weakest links, increasing the quality of the food and, most importantly, making sure the produce is safe to eat.

Compliance with the Act

In order to ensure compliance with the FSMA, European exporters are quickly turning to RFID (Radio-frequency identification) tags as a method of implementing a ubiquitous temperature monitoring and traceability solution from producer to retailer. Temperature management can play a key role in food safety as human pathogens are more likely to develop when produce temperature is not properly monitored, managed or controlled. Studies have found significant variation in temperatures at the pallet level — significant enough to indicate that monitoring only at transit- or container-level is inadequate. Without pallet-level temperature monitoring, there is no way for the retailer or consumer to know that the product abides by this new legislation.

The latest innovative product for tracking and monitoring fresh produce is referred to as “XC3 Technology”, which incorporates two ISO and EPC global industry standards for battery-assisted passive RFID. XC3 Technology-based readers and tags provide:

  • superior range performance (100m or more)

  • the ability to penetrate packaging to monitor and manage the actual condition of a product (as compared to the ambient temperature on the outside of a package, which does not accurately represent the true condition of the product)

  • sensor support for temperature or other conditions

  • track-and-trace capabilities directly on the tag and in the cloud as it travels with the product from manufacture or production through to the distributor or retailer.

Never before have exporters been given such clear intelligence regarding their supply chain.

Tracking produce

In a recent research product, I used Intelleflex’s XC3 Technology solutions for produce-tracking over three Hawaiian islands for one year, focusing on longer distance supply routes and international laws, such as the FSMA. Intelleflex TMT-8500 temperature monitoring tags continuously collected, read and analysed data at each way-point in the supply chain. Each pallet or separate shipment needed its own unique tag, which recorded the temperature through the handling process. The tags were configured to communicate with a reader and data was transmitted through a wireless device that uses GPS tracking, thereby allowing data and location to be transmitted via satellite.

During standard visual inspection of the produce, the shippers were under the assumption that the temperature of the produce remained at 45o Fahrenheit throughout the shipment. However, the real data showed a fluctuation between the various pallets from a low of 43o to an extremely high 54o, which identified huge variations and therefore which areas require improvement.

Implementing the FSMA

Although recent studies have shown that Europe is leading the way in reducing food waste, Asia and China have seized on the implementation of the FSMA as the perfect opportunity to use the latest technology and conduct internal audits on their supply chain, and are quickly becoming the dominant exporters of fresh produce.

Europe’s attitude towards the FSMA needs to follow suit as, in the UK alone, over 80,000 people became ill due to food-borne diseases in 2008. Laws like the FSMA can provide guidelines for the UK to help cut down the number of illnesses. Currently, exporters seem to be left in the dark rather than seeing this as a chance to use the latest tracking technologies to position themselves at the forefront of the global produce industry.

Another incentive is that by proactively monitoring and managing the temperature of products in the cold chain, wastage can be reduced, meaning more products can be sold, generating more revenue for the growers. In many cases, this additional revenue more than offsets the costs of the solution, generating a rapid positive return on investment while effectively providing FSMA mandated traceability for free.

The FSMA has been implemented with the objective of ensuring higher quality produce in America. With Europe’s plans for 2012 to be “the year for reduced waste and freshness”, the FSMA should not be viewed as a threat but a golden opportunity for exporters to freshen up their supply chains from grower to retailer and clamp down on the number of illnesses worldwide.

The author of this article is a food quality expert and founder of Ryan Systems, a leading provider of integrated food safety and quality control solutions.