Food businesses and markets in Europe continued to experience disjointed supply chains and the use of different technologies last year.
As in the past, food processors in the EU followed policies, standards and operations that were not necessarily coordinated with their surrounding regions – perhaps as a result of Europe’s heterogeneous population and the wide array of beliefs, attitudes and concerns for how food is produced and consumed.
The results of this fragmentation are less than optimal competitiveness, both across the EU and globally, as well as lower quality and safety standards.
That is important, as some studies have suggested that Europe’s food supply chain – which links agriculture, food processing and distribution – comprises more than 7% of European employment and represents 16% of household spending.
The COMPETE project, a three-year study of the state of the agri-food environment in Europe, with participants from 16 organizations across 10 countries, recently published its recommendations for food businesses, governments and other interested associations.
The project was born out of a desire to gain a more comprehensive view of the different elements that contribute to the competitiveness of Europe’s food sector and knowledge-based bio-economy, and to provide more targeted and evidence-based policies for the EU and individual nations.
Among the top recommendations was an increase in the support of research and development in order to keep ahead in quality and foster diversification and market power of food products.
And the coordinator of the COMPETE project, Heinrich Hockmann, said if the EU countries do not coordinate, they will continue to fall behind international competitors.
Currently, the EU does not have a top-down mandate similar to the US Food Safety Modernization Act.
However, there are ways the EU countries can stay competitive, especially when it comes to food quality and overall safety for consumers.
For example, Europe seems to be leveraging consumer technologies to increase transparency in food supply chains, resulting in greater safety and quality from end to end.
The UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) is using Google’s map technology to pinpoint food safety violations in restaurants and other businesses in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland.
For its food hygiene ratings, the FSA uses a combination of old and new technology: after a restaurant is inspected, it is given a rating on a scale of zero to five, and a sticker is displayed in the front window, with the results published in an online database.
The data is publically available for third-party app developers to use so consumers can ‘know before you go’.
In a couple of cases, restaurants given a rating of zero or one can very quickly fixed the problems and were re-inspected to earn a higher rating.
The FSA is also analyzing Twitter hashtags to monitor contamination outbreaks — a new method that allowed the agency to detect and home in on the center of a Norovirus problem two weeks sooner than the traditional method of gathering the reports from health care providers.
Front-to-back supply chain management has also been an emerging trend in Europe, for example in Italy, where the pasta producer Barilla started using quick response codes on special packages to let consumers track their specific food item through its entire supply chain.
A scan with a smartphone led to a website where consumers could learn about that particular batch of food, all the way from the farm to production plant to the store, like a shipping service tracking number for food.
Whether for disease outbreaks, hygiene ratings, or food chain tracking, the food industry has created a live data trail accessible at any time from any location, and the trend in end-to-end transparency is only expanding.
For example, new sensors have been developed to monitor individual cattle for illness, or to report the temperature in produce shipping containers, all in real time.
All of these technologies—old, new, and repurposed—have been creating greater transparency and safety in the entire food supply chain, which means safer food for consumers and greater competitiveness for food suppliers, in the EU and across the globe.
As 3M serves up new and innovative tools meant to enable safety from the start, it has been exciting and encouraging to see the European food industry more fully consider and embrace the possibilities associated with change.
Story by Jonathan Walsh, 3M Food Safety technical services manager