Farm to Truck to Table: Advances make it easier to keep an eye on the cold chain

June 19, 2018

About a decade ago, Driscoll’s introduced technology from HarvestMark to electronically track individual consumer packs of berries.

While food safety was driving that effort, the company saw its potential for adding new tools to engage consumers and get feedback, according to a paper presented at a California Agribusiness Executive Seminar in March 2017. To start, consumers could scan a QR code or enter a code from the package at the HarvestMark website to see which farm their berries had come from.

But over time, the technology has grown to tie together plant breeding, growing and picking, and the supply chain – not only for efficient traceability, but to drive quality improvements and gauge customer satisfaction.

And that’s the way data logging in fresh produce is going today. The processes that growers, packers, shippers and processors are implementing to assure food safety and meet traceability requirements can also be powerful tools for managing their businesses – and technology is the linchpin.

Traceability and an increased amount of data on each load helps not only with product quality but with food safety. Photo: RedLine Solutions

“That technology has gone through a rapid advancement and it’s driven by sensor technology,” said Ed Treacy, vice president of supply chain efficiencies for the Produce Marketing Association. “Sensors have become more effective and cheaper and people have integrated that, and the communicating with those sensors through mobile, Wi-Fi and other devices.

“There’s been a lot of investment in that area that has helped fuel these devices becoming smarter and able to track a lot more information than we traditionally had.”

In the past, Treacy said, tracking systems were built around passive devices that were manufacturer-specific.

“If you had this certain brand, you stuck it on the side of a pallet and you needed that company’s reader to decipher information at the other end, or you’d drop it in an envelope and send it somewhere and someone else would read it,” he said. “It definitely wasn’t

in real time and it was very limited in the amount of information – typically it would track the temperature – but it was awkward and a lot of steps.”

Now, he said, companies use cell phones, Bluetooth or other devices to track factors like location and temperature.

“I have seen a lot of devices that are multi-communication channel, so they’ll use whatever is available at the time,” Treacy said. “I’ve seen devices communicate via cell, via wireless, via Bluetooth, and they can switch between the two or three depending on what’s available.”

And the information is current – not just delivered every hour or two.

“Every 15 minutes they are getting signals of tracking this load and exactly what the temperature is,” Treacy said. “And if the temperature gets out of range, the driver pulls over and fixes it rather than the next time he gets to a truck stop and takes a look.”

But the data is offering other important insights that help companies better manage transportation, logistics and shipments – and make adjustments in real time. If a load is running late or becoming temperature compromised, maybe it’s diverted to another, closer customer, for example.

“People are starting to integrate: now that I have that information coming, what can I do with it and how can I better utilize it to make my operation more efficient,” Treacy said. “There’s all sorts of information you can use real time and post transaction, after a shipment is loaded and done.”

Making technology affordable 

  1. Dan Sun, president of HarvestMark, said his company is constantly enhancing its software, adding new features to make it more user friendly and address issues as they arise. Cost is always a concern in produce, he said, and drives development as well.

“How do you put together a traceability program without adding too much cost?” Sun said. “That has been an area we have focused on and worked closely with our customers to make sure we have a system streamlined and going with production flow without adding costs or delay.

“So we’ve been doing a lot of work to make sure the system is embedded in the current workflow and doesn’t add a lot of hassle and is easy to train.”

Also, with produce coming in from all over the world – often in places that don’t have internet connectivity – traceability systems still need to work, regardless of the environment. Sun cites the example of berries being packed in some remote area where growers, shippers or packers may mistakenly mix up labels.

“They may have the label on one side saying it’s 12-ounce blueberries when it’s actually raspberries,” he said. “So we added error-detection features with image sensors that can read the bottom label and top label and make sure the UPC code matches the text and graphics.

“Small errors can lead to big problems.”

HarvestMark is “sensor agnostic,” Sun said, in the sense that individual customers’ circumstances help dictate what the best process is for them.

“There’s Bluetooth, there’s NFC (Near Field Communication, which enables communication in close proximity via smartphone), there’s RFID (radio-frequency communication to track tags) … but any time you have electronic sensors, cost is going to be a problem,” he said. “What we’ve realized over the years is most of our customers stay with plain old printed QR and bar codes – those tend to be the lowest-cost addition to their production system.

“But we are looking at other alternatives – image recognition, Bluetooth, RFID – a lot of our systems are using those.”

Cloud enhances accessibility 

California-based RedLine Solutions has turned to the cloud to make its produce traceability and inventory software products more affordable for medium- and smaller-sized customers. CEO Todd Baggett said the company had typically served larger customers for whom implementing a system could start at $50,000 on the low end. Now a basic labeling system for a smaller operation can run about $1,500 (for a three-user print only), or for about $5,000 a year on the software side tracking inventory, packing and validated shipping. (RedLine uses mobile bar code computers to make sure only correct items are shipped.)

Some of RedLine’s programs remain server-based. But its web-based applications offer advantages not just to smaller operations, but to larger ones that don’t have big IT staffs or time to invest in a lot of training.

Some customers in rural areas where high-speed internet isn’t available or reliable turn to satellite or cellular technology.

“As that continues to grow, it’s opening more options for some of these smaller growers and shippers who didn’t have infrastructure in their communities five and 10 years ago to do these kinds of things,” Baggett said.

One of the main barriers to companies adopting a traceability program has been cost. New data loggers have brought that cost down to more
attainable levels. Photo: RedLine Solutions

The ‘Delight Platform’ 

Driscoll’s traceability efforts came together under the umbrella of what the company calls its “Delight Platform,” according to a paper from Mary Shelman, former director of the agribusiness program at Harvard Business School, and the Department of Agricultural Resource Economics at the University of California Davis presented in 2017.

“The Delight Platform provided an integrated system for Driscoll’s to monitor and track berries as they moved from farm to table,” the report states. “Importantly, it allowed managers to proactively manage the ‘twin towers’ of time (how fast the berry got to the consumer) and temperature (maintaining the cold chain at a consistent temperature of 33 degrees Fahrenheit from cooler to store).”

The company did that via a variety of technologies. For example, a smart system developed by Inteligistics was installed in cooling operations, with a special Bluetooth unit providing precise temperature monitoring attached to each pallet before going into the cooling tunnel. The system alerts operators when berries are ready to be moved, eliminating undercooling (which causes quality issues) and overcooling (wasting energy and capacity).

Battery-powered sensors from Locus Traxx were placed in every pallet in transit from coolers to customers’ distribution centers. The GPS-based system meant the company could monitor trailer location, temperature and security electronically and visually – so a problem like a temperature increase signifying a broken cooling unit could mean immediately rerouting a truck for repair.

By 2016, the report states, the Delight Platform included a variety of technologies and applications that covered the “first mile” (growing and harvesting), “middle mile” (cooler to customer distribution center) and “last mile” (store to home).

Important to the company, the process also included incentives for customers to provide feedback via labels in each clamshell. That information on key quality aspects has helped Driscoll’s identify issues regarding everything from plant breeding and transportation to storage and packaging.

“Customers can scan the QR code and provide feedback to Driscoll’s,” Sun said. “And Driscoll’s will be able to know if their products are doing the job.”

And if they aren’t, the company can track it all the way back to figure out why.