Traceability in precision food supply chains

Blockchain, IoT, smart labelling, sensors and -omics based technologies are examples of traceability enablers that will transform food supply chain management towards 2030 and beyond.

Traceability in the food system refers to in-depth tracking of supply chain data and the possibility to get detailed information about product freshness, nutrient content and externalities such as social and environmental footprints. Traceability is also the basic input for effective logistics management and, as a consequence, reducing food waste. The most important traceability value is however related to food safety, as it allows for efficient recall and withdrawal of specific batches of contaminated food. Increased ability to digitally trace food will enable more granular information related to each individual product, as opposed to production systems. This in turn will highlight the importance of third-party verification of enabling technologies, algorithms and other digital assets.

So what are the traceability enabling technologies that will transform food-supply management towards 2030 and beyond?

Blockchain and smart labelling – creating two-way links between consumers and producers

Blockchain allows each product tracking story to be traced from farm to fork with time-stamped information at every stage of the creation process. The unique way blockchain stores data implies that the information cannot be tampered nor falsified. The producer and its suppliers jointly compile relevant information on the farming and food processing, until the product is packaged. This information can be collected by all parties in the supply chain. Ingredients and materials used in the making of these products, among many other factors, are recorded and can be verified in the blockchain. When the product reaches the end user, data regarding the product has been stored on the blockchain and shown to customers via a unique, secure QR code or other smart labelling technologies.

The only thing the final consumer has to do to get access to the entire timeline of their product, is to scan the secure QR code or retrieve information from a smart labelling tag, using a smartphone.  A blockchain-based supply chain will result in food that is safe and traceable while reducing waste and creating benefits for all the stakeholders in the food supply chain.  Blockchain is opening many avenues for linking companies to consumers by enabling a two-way communication between producers and consumers.  It also comes with the possibility for decentralized marketplaces allowing manufacturers to join and publish products for sale. Other important benefits are the possibility for improved market analysis and service offerings as well as access to new service offerings such as capital and advisory services for producers.2

Food sensors - reducing waste, informing diets and combating fraud

Food sensors based on near-infrared spectrometric and hyperspectral imaging are other technologies that will increase transparency in future food systems. Such technologies will be used to track a product’s quality as indicated by its content of protein, fat, pigmentation or sugar. All this will happen in real time during the production processes2. Food sensors will facilitate individual identification of poor-quality input resources and enable back-tracking to find the root cause of any problem (variation in quality). This allows for continuous optimization of resource-use throughout a product’s value chain and will significantly reduce food waste in food production systems.  Food sensors will also enable sorting of food based on quality to different markets and price categories. Food prices can therefore reflect the quality of the food, while increased transparency regarding a product’s contents permits the consumer to make informed choices about their diets that will have a positive health impact. Handheld spectrometers are already helping people with diabetes and cardiovascular disease to track their consumption of fats and sugars, and there are also devices that can help identify allergens in food3.  Food fraud is another important challenge where food sensors will be a part of the future solution. The test for weight fraud by measuring excess water in frozen fish is one example of application of spectrometry that will help consumers to verify their products3.

Smart and active packaging

Future food packaging will consist of environmentally friendly materials with smart labelling and integrated sensors that can inform all parties (consumer, retailer, manufacturer and farmer) about a food products status through the entire food chain.4 This can improve production processes and logistics and reduce food waste, both during transport and by reducing reliance on estimated use-by dates once at the retailer. Increased food safety and a reduction of the environmental burden of food packaging are other important advantages. The complexity of food samples and the difficulty to measure markers of degradation directly in closed packaging without prior sample treatment are some main challenges related to these technologies.

Omics approaches for advancing food safety and authentication

Recent progresses in omics technologies (proteomics, metabolomics and genomics) have allowed the development of Foodomics that will significantly improve food safety by rapid identification of microbial contamination throughout the food chain. The technology is also suitable to prove the geographical origin, production or cultivation processes as well as the overall biological and chemical identity of the food, hence providing an efficient tool for rapid detection of food fraud.

Wearable technologies in livestock farming

IoT in combination with sensors to facilitate identification and tracking of information are other key enablers for comprehensive and consistent data-collection along the food supply chain. One interesting example is the emerging use of wearable technologies in livestock farming.5 These technologies can be integrated inside the body of the animal to make accurate health status and track the condition (stress etc.) of animals during shipment. Other important uses of such technologies include timely diagnosis of diseases and increased traceability of the use of antibiotics and other medications. The real-time dissemination of data collected from the farms through these technologies will allow food manufacturing stakeholders' access to this information that will be essential to the social license issues facing the agricultural sector.

Opportunities and market impacts

The complexity of the food supply chain is higher than ever, imposing high risks involving food safety, fraud, inefficient and unethical production, as well as huge food loss.  As a response to the increasing complexity there is a growing trend in the food industry to invest more in technologies that improve traceability to improve risk management at all levels of food production, processing and distribution. Blockchain in the agriculture and food supply-chain market was valued at USD 41,2 million in 2017 and is projected to reach USD 429,7 million by 2023 indicating a strong growth in the application of these technologies in the next decade.6

Improved traceability will deliver the potential for cost savings and gaining customer trust. Each year the impact of unsafe food causes production losses of around USD 95 billion in low-and middle-income economies.7 Increased traceability also represents a potential to save on food recall costs by enabling the possibility to recall only affected and smaller parties of food.

Food fraud scandals erode customer trust in food. This is creating a market for customer reassurance beyond what is printed on the label of a product. Lack of trust is also reflected in increased customer demand for validating a product’s claim to support sustainability goals. This push for increased validation is creating a market for traceability technologies that allow for calculation of a product’s external impact on the environment, economy, health and society.

The fact that 30–40% of all food grown is currently wasted presents a huge sustainability challenge and at the same time a tremendous opportunity for new efficiencies throughout the distribution system. Food sensing technologies can reduce food waste by 7%, and IoT and Blockchain-enabled traceability can reduce food loss by 1–2%.2

Risks and uncertainties

Risks and uncertainties related to the use of traceability technologies are mainly related to the willingness of actors throughout the supply chain to share their data. Both ethical and governance dilemmas can arise related to sharing of personal information in a distributed ledger system. There is a need to develop clear, consistent and globally harmonized standards for data collection, governance and sharing.


Main author: Marte Rusten

Contributors: Sharmini Alagaratnam; Erik Andreas Hektor; Bente Pretlove

Editor: Per Busk Christiansen

  1. DNV GL 2019. Viewpoint report Food Safety: What`s next to assure its future?
  2. WEF 2019. Innovation with a purpose: Improving Traceability in Food Value Chains through Technology Innovations
  3. Suggested citation: 2017 Recent advances in wearable sensors for animal health management Sensing and Biosensing Research.
  5. FAO 2018. Overview of Food Fraud in the Fisheries Sector
  6. Blockchain in Agriculture Market (and Food Supply Chain), Application (Product Traceability, Payment and Settlement, Smart Contracts, and Governance, Risk and Compliance Management), Provider, Organization Size, and Region – Global Forecast to 2023. Market Research Report from Markets and Markets, Sep 2018 Report code
  7. Mustafa, M and Andreescu, S. 2018.Chemical and Biological Sensors for Food-Quality Monitoring and Smart Packaging.
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