Over the past year, there has been heated discussion over whether the Bush administration has adequately addressed the threat of bioterrorism in regards to the nation's food supply.
Whichever side you take on that debate, it appears the food industry itself -- both on the manufacturer and the retailer side -- has been taking steps to secure its supply chain.
"The No. 1 priority for GMA members is securing the protection of their brands, which goes hand-in-hand with protecting the consumer and making sure the food products they get are safe and wholesome," said Susan Stout, vice president of federal affairs for Grocery Manufacturers of America, Washington.
"There are several fronts that retailers and manufacturers are moving on to enhance the security and safety of the food supply chain," said Peter Regen, vice president of global visible commerce for Blue Bell, Pa.-based Unisys, a systems integrator. "There is a front for protection, a front for detection, and a front for response. You see progress being made on all those fronts."
Food Marketing Institute, Washington, is involved on several such fronts. For example, FMI and its members are working with the federal government to facilitate the rapid detection of any "agents" that could be introduced into the food chain, noted Tim Hammonds, FMI's president and chief executive officer. "There's a lot of development going on with research laboratories and simulated tests to ensure that we, in the food industry, can respond quickly if a bioterror event occurs," he stated.
FMI and its members are also participating in various simulated attacks with police, fire 51and other security agencies to make sure "we have the capabilities to respond effectively before an emergency actually occurs," said Hammonds.
Last year, FMI partnered with the International Compliance Information Exchange (iCiX), Melbourne, Australia, to provide a Web site (www.icix.com) for verifying, communicating and promoting supplier compliance with myriad food safety and quality standards, including FMI's own Safe Quality Food Initiative. "This service is a first for the food industry and a must in this time of heightened concern about food safety worldwide," Hammonds said.
Austin, Texas-based Michael Angelos, a manufacturer of frozen Italian foods, is now posting all of its compliance documents to the iCiX database "so anytime a retailer wants to verify our compliance with bio-terrorism regulations, they just log in and they can see whether we have all the appropriate documents," said Anass Bennani, manager of information systems for Michael Angelos. Bennani said many major food retailers have required the company to use the service.
Recordkeeping has become more pressing for retailers and manufacturers. With the recordkeeping provision of the Bioterrorism Act of 2002 now law, supermarkets and their suppliers are gearing up to implement automated systems and best practices that will enhance recordkeeping processes.
Lot code tracking, to the industry's relief, is not among the requirements for retailers. However, retailers will still be required to maintain records identifying the previous source and subsequent recipient of food -- information they already have in most cases. Companies with 500 or more employees must comply by Dec. 9.
One large grocery retailer is beta-testing an integrated data tracking and data management solution from Plano, Texas-based Retalix. "This retailer already runs our systems," said Barbara Thomas, a spokeswoman for Retalix, "They began working with us on track-and-trace in July 2003. They want to be ready in advance to capture transactional data and be able to do a 'show and tell' for the federal government" when the USDA's COOL (county of origin) legislation and FDA's [recordkeeping] bioterrorism regulation go into effect.
COOL labeling takes effect for seafood on April 4, and is slated to be applied to affected commodities like meat Sept. 30, 2006.
Scot McLeod, vice president of marketing for Atlanta-based Ross Systems, said retailers, especially those with a large store-brand program, are seriously concerned about the damage their brands could suffer due to large-scale contamination of packaged goods, be it accidental or intentional. To cost-effectively provide the brand assurance sought by retailers, private-label suppliers need, he noted, a system of record that includes bi-directional lot traceability.
Michael Angelos has been using Ross' software to track its products through its supply chain for years, said Bennani. The system is flexible enough to incorporate additional information when new regulations come along.
Without automated systems, such as the Ross software, said Bennani, "we could still be a part of a data network like iCiX, but only if we had many more people in Quality Assurance and if we killed a large number of trees each year."
Gerry Greenleaf, vice president of distribution for Hannaford Bros., Scarborough, Maine, said the chain intends "to continue to add enhancements and capabilities as regulations get clearer, and as we can build those enhancements and capabilities into our infrastructure. In essence, we are trying to make the process of accessing required information easier."
Greenleaf said Hannaford is also having recordkeeping conversations with product suppliers. "We are putting more quality-control constraints on our private-label vendors," said Greenleaf, "because these products are under our control. They carry our brand, and we have the expectation that the vendors who make those products will get the needed information to us. Of course, how they get that information to us is their challenge. "
In a study conducted by the Journal of Commerce and Unisys late last year, more than 75% of respondents said the greatest weakness in supply chain security lies within the first links of the chain -- where cargo is loaded, or en route to seaports.
Thus, many retailers and manufacturers that import products from overseas are testing diverse low- and high-tech technologies that can monitor products as they move from loading docks, through oceans and into home ports.
Many of these technologies, though initially costly and complex, have the added benefit of potentially being able to lower logistical costs substantially by giving visibility into where products are and who has access to them.
Sara Lee Coffee & Tea Foodservice, a unit of Chicago-based Sara Lee and its sister division, Sara Lee Branded Apparel, has participated in two pilots funded by a $58 million grant from the Transportation Security Administration, which has since been absorbed into the Department of Homeland Security.
Randy Koch, practice director of supply chain management for Unisys, which implemented the Sara Lee pilots, noted that the pilots, which ended last October, specifically tested the effectiveness of using new tracking processes and technologies to enhance visibility into the supply chain and create a supply chain audit trail.
For example, Unisys used handheld devices to ensure there weren't chemical or bio-agents on coffee bags loaded from a dock in Brazil onto containers. Unisys also checked the containers for "false walls" that could hide materials. To make sure containers were sealed properly, a regular seal and tamper-evident tape were used on the sides of the closed doors.
"If the door was open in transit, the tamper-resistant tape would change colors and the tampering could be immediately detected visually," said Koch.
The more high-tech route was to put an RFID tag on each container and track that container though its life cycle, using RFID readers.
After implementing four pilots to date, Koch said Unisys determined that "process integrity and training" are the most critical components of increasing security. "You need standard operating procedures for people to follow to increase security," he said.
Unisys also found that most container-tracking technologies, at this point, do not work sufficiently or are prohibitively expensive, Koch said. However, one high-tech solution that proved effective and economically viable is an RFID-sensor container security device that goes inside the container and detects door openings. "We tested 15 door-opening events, and it caught all 15," said Koch.
Getting the Word Out
Communication plays a vital role in combating threats to the food supply. To shore up its outreach network, Food Marketing Institute, Washington, has been coordinating a public/private sector partnership known as the Food and Agriculture Information Sharing and Analysis Center (ISAC) since February 2002.
"ISAC is a mechanism for us to push out to our members and to other associations like the GMA, via e-mail, information about warnings and alerts that would come to us from governmental agencies like the Department of Homeland Security [DHS] or the FBI," said Tim Hammonds, president and chief executive officer of FMI. "Associations like GMA would then push out that information to their members."
ISAC, said Hammonds, also gives FMI members and affiliated associations a forum for reporting confidential "watch and information warnings" to the DHS.
"ISAC tells retailers and other industry participants when there are suspicious activities to look for and where to report any suspicious activities they may know of."