Food Security and Smart Packaging

“Food, glorious food!” The line from the musical Oliver drives home to us the importance of protecting our food supply, both current and future, for the benefit and safety of each and every one of us.

Companies throughout the world are required to track that which we consume from farm to table. The many instances in which our food can be contaminated during processing or handling just serves to add fuel to the fire. The fact remains that the world’s food supply chains need monitoring and augmentation. Food security, or insecurity, is a supply chain issue, not an availability issue, for there is food aplenty. How can technology protect that food?

Low Technology

The most basic means suppliers use to track products is called “product dating.” This is most often encountered as a “Best if Used By” sticker on the product. But except for infant formula, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) does not require product dating, under current food safety regulations. Their fact sheet on food product dating states that “dates may be voluntarily applied provided they are labeled in a manner that is truthful and not misleading and in compliance with FSIS regulations.” The USDA also notes that “Dates are not an indicator of the product’s safety and are not required by Federal law.”

Thus, every supplier is on their own to choose how they may wish to communicate via labeling with both the retailer (on whose shelves we, the consumer, find their goods) and the consumer.

Codes, Codes and More Codes

We then progressed to barcoding, which told us when and where a product was packaged. This is a means which allows the product/produce providers to identify batches which were identified as being bad subsequent to shipment. Every day there are product and food items recalled for any number of reasons, ranging from foreign objects being found in a batch, to the presence of bacterium.

These codes also served to push forward the automation of the “checkout” experience, as well as inventory control. But was it enough?

Not by a long shot.

Moderate Technology

Proving the only constant is change, enter the world of near field communication (NFC). According to the NFC Forum, work is afoot to evolve smart packaging. Smart packaging uses sensors to determine time, date, and temperature. Thus with an electronic interrogatory, the goods on the shelves or in the cold-display can return detailed information to the grocer.

The same tag could be used by the consumer to interrogate the product’s handling (length of time on shelf, temperature of storage, etc.) and of course to further facilitate autonomous checkout by tallying the items in the basket, on the consumer’s own device, for rapid payment using electronic systems. Amazon has been testing this concept in their Amazon Go stores, although progress is still at an experimental stage.

Each aspect of the adoption of NFC tagging, is an opportunity for the ne’er-do-wells of the world to do harm, as well. Thus, information security must be factored into the expense of building these technologies, which is not an insignificant cost when compared with barcoding and QR coding.

Meanwhile, according to the folks at Futurism, researchers at the American Chemical Society recently presented their work on creating a “paper sensor” which indicates whether food has spoiled. In this instance, the paper sensor is “redox” active. Meaning, when they encounter the substance for which they are monitoring (bacterium, for example), the paper changes color.

Like the smart, interactive tags, the current instances are the vanguard of the opportunity. One can imagine creating package labels which change colors when food has spoiled, providing a visual aid to the grocer and consumer.

More Advanced Technology

Then there is the world of counterfeit foods – created via a process officially known as economically motivated adulteration (EMA). For example, ‘virgin olive oil’ bulked up with cheap vegetable oil, or ‘wild clover honey’ which is adulterated with rice sugar and high-fructose corn syrup. These “fake foods” will, if not detected, at best level us with a bout of food poisoning and, at worst, hasten our demise.

To counter that risk, heavy lifting has occurred in the world of food industry fraud and malpractice. According to Bloomberg, Inscatech is one of those who is heavily invested in this effort. The company is focused on supply chain authenticity detection and protection. Similar to the use of paper sensors, Inscatech is developing molecular markers and genetic fingerprints. These markers will serve to authenticate natural products and foodstuffs from fakes.

In addition, blockchain technology has successfully been used by Walmart in a trial to track pork within its 400-store network in China. The trial successfully tracked the meat within the supply chain, previously a 26-hour task, which was completed in seconds. Similarly, ZhongAn Information and Technology Services (Shanghai) successfully conducted a similar trial, tracing the farm to table of some of the 50 billion chickens sold in China each year.

While there remains much to evolve, it would appear that the security of our food supply chain is possible. It would also appear this same technology will be useful in improving the global logistic conundrum, which, according to studies commissioned by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, estimates yearly global food loss and waste by quantity at “roughly 30 percent of cereals, 40–50 percent of root crops, fruits and vegetables, 20 percent of oil, seeds, meat and dairy products, and 35 percent of fish.”

About Christopher Burgess

Christopher Burgess (@burgessct) is an author and speaker on the topic of security strategy. Christopher served 30+ years within the Central Intelligence Agency. Upon his retirement, the CIA awarded him the Career Distinguished Intelligence Medal, the highest level of career recognition. Christopher co-authored the book, Secrets Stolen, Fortunes Lost - Preventing Intellectual Property Theft and Economic Espionage in the 21st Century (Syngress, March 2008).