GMO-free. Organic. Grass-fed. While consumers are bombarded with health buzzwords on labels at the grocery store, they still don’t truly understand where their food comes from. This largely stems from the fact that food supply chains are incredibly complex, spanning multiple geographies and processes. Because of this, the digitization of the food supply chain is crucial in providing transparency to consumers. By having better documentation of each of the steps involved to get food from the farm to the table, food producers can better respond to increasing consumer scrutiny on food origin, food quality, nutritional value, and processed ingredients. 
The digitization of the food supply chain can also be incredibly useful in enhancing food safety. Chipotle, for instance, has still not recovered from its 2015 scandal in which 55 people from 11 states were infected with E. coli. The FDA noted at the time that it conducted tracebacks of multiple ingredients but was unable to conclude exactly what food caused the outbreak.  By digitally enhancing the elements of the food supply chain, the culprit could have been properly identified and caught sooner.
Barilla Group, a worldwide producer of pasta and sauces, is one of the leaders in using digital technology to transform its food supply chain. In partnership with Cisco, Penelope S.p.A., an Italian consulting firm, and NTT data, an IT service provider, Barilla recently implemented a pilot of its Safety4Food platform, which allows consumers to trace every step of the supply chain for the production of its food. The platform combines a network of sensors, wireless networks, and the cloud with analytics to enable this transparency. After scanning a QR code on the package, consumers are directed to Barilla’s website where they will see a detailed “digital passport” of that specific batch of product – from the farm to factory to point of sale. The website also features information on local farm suppliers and how these farms use digital technology to improve the efficiency of their operations. 
In addition, Barilla and Cisco are partnering with the scientific community, NGOs, technology companies, and other food producers to create the Safety for Food Initiative. This is an online network which provides access to a global database from the entire agricultural food chain.  The initiative seeks to break through information silos on the supply chain to adhere to and enhance international standards on food safety.
Barilla’s supply chain digitization represents a major advancement in the Internet of Things (IoT) technology in the food industry and provides a multitude of benefits to Barilla. Consumers are more drawn to the brand as they create a more meaningful cultural connection with the food they are eating. Additionally, this increased transparency helps reduce food fraud and counterfeiting, which is a $50 billion annual industry.  Furthermore, this transparency allows Barilla to monitor its food quality on a granular basis in order to prevent food safety crises.
Going forward, Barilla should move beyond the pilot and identify more commercial uses for IoT and digitization in its food supply chain. In addition to providing consumer transparency and enhancing food safety, I recommend that Barilla use the real-time data provided by this technology to decrease food waste, increase the efficiency of its production operations, and better understand the environmental impact of its operations.
Approximately one third of all food is lost or wasted before it is consumed per year.  Food waste that occurs during the transportation and distribution portion of the supply chain is a major contributor to this, amounting to 1.3 billion tons per year. Barilla can decrease the food loss in its supply chain by employing sensors that track in real time temperatures and points of transfer. This data can be integrated into a centralized database that would help it act faster to prevent food from being spoiled.
Additionally, these sensors can be used to streamline Barilla’s production processes by better managing and restocking of inventory, monitoring factory productivity, and understanding labor inputs. Eventually, digitization can even be used to automate shipping and delivery processes. In other industries, it is already used to track product locations by GPS and to optimize delivery routes by tracking weather patterns and traffic conditions.  Barilla can leverage the data provided by digitization for almost endless opportunities for analysis in order to make smarter business decisions.
In going beyond the initial pilot, an open question I have is whether Barilla’s suppliers will be open to adapting more digitization in the supply chain. I can imagine a scenario in which suppliers are reluctant to provide information on their operations since they may dislike the concept of others collecting and analyzing their data. Additionally, I would be concerned about how much money would be required to scale this operation and if it makes financial sense to do so.
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- Moore, John, “Internet of Things: Food safety apps set to emerge,” Tech Target, January 2016, [http://internetofthingsagenda.techtarget.com/feature/Internet-of-Things-Food-safety-apps-set-to-emerge], accessed November 2017.
- “FDA Investigates Multistate Outbreak of E. coli O26 Infections Linked to Chipotle Mexican Grill Restaurants,” FDA, February 2016, [https://www.fda.gov/Food/RecallsOutbreaksEmergencies/Outbreaks/ucm470410.htm], accessed November 2017.
- “From the Ground to the Grocer, Barilla Makes Use of Cisco’s Internet of Everything to Give Consumers Insight into the Journey of Their Food,” Cisco press release (San Jose, CA, September 2015).
- Safety4Food, http://www.safety4food.org/, accessed November 2017.
- Taylor, Kate, “Expert reveals 5 expensive restaurant foods that are often fake,” Business Insider, July 2016, [http://www.businessinsider.com/fake-food-expert-on-how-to-spot-scams-2016-7], accessed November 2017.
- Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, “Food Loss and Waste,” http://www.fao.org/food-loss-and-food-waste/en/, accessed November 2017.
- Shankar, Udaya, “How the Internet of Things Impacts Supply Chains,” Inbound Logistics, August 2014, [http://www.inboundlogistics.com/cms/article/how-the-internet-of-things-impacts-supply-chains/], accessed November 2017.