Challenges in Food Distribution and Processing

We are interested in exploring a holistic food systems approach and want to better understand specific challenges that manifest in the transit from farm to table. The distribution includes aggregation, transportation, consolidation, inspection, processing, packaging, storage, etc.

    What are issues facing the different **stakeholders** involved with the above mentioned processes during distribution? What are the problems that arise during distribution that negatively influence the **environment**? What are the problems that arise during distribution that negatively influence human **health**? How severe are these challenges and how severe is their **impact**?

@Kenneth and @saraeckhouse, do you have any thoughts on these issues?

@dbeckles, I wonder if you could help us answer some of these questions?

Not an expert on food logistics, but a key issue for EU (and Italians!) is food safety, which in turn means that the whole earth-to-plate transit should be monitored against unsafe procedures, chemicals etc… Putting it bluntly, in at least a part of the developed world if I don’t know where a certain product comes from, if I don’t know if what comes from location xyz is safe or not, if I can’t trace all passages to be sure of its safety, then I won’t buy it and I won’t eat it. Traceability is a growing need that will impact production (instructions on how to farm, which chemicals to use, which one not to use etc…), distribution (how many passages, how is food kept fresh etc…) and processed (again, the whole process has to be monitored, safe, etc…). Salaries and workers’ safety is also a concern. While not even the most advanced countries are free from problems on these, there are some huge gaps between various countries, which in turn means that agri-products that remain on local markets and agri-products that are sold abroad may face different challenges and require different approaches in production, distribution and processing.

The government of India, in 2018 launched Operation Greens, with an outlay of INR 5 billion to promote Farmer Producers Organizations (FPOs #), agri-logistics, processing facilities and professional management for integrated development of Tomato, Onion and Potato (TOP) value chain and to stabilise the demand-supply situation for these crops and promote initiatives to control disparity.

The fluctuating prices situation required fundamental changes beginning from crop variety selection (table variety v/s processing varieties), procurement mechanism, post-harvest handling and storage, processing of produce, market development, logistics services and distribution.

In India, the cold chain network is highly disaggregated and operates on thin margins, therefore, there is a massive need for the development of large scale infrastructure to support the mass storage and movement of perishable items. The limitation also is highly sophisticated capital-intensive machinery leading to the need to maintain capacity utilization.

Whilst in India there are two main types of agri-food supply chains, namely, agri-food chains for fresh agricultural products and agri-food chains for processed food products.
Linking primary producers with modern food supermarkets is seen as a way to improve rural livelihoods, especially small producers for perishable food items is a win-win situation for both and better traceability.

The private sector, particularly retailers, play a critical role in agri-food chains. Organised supply chains provide opportunities for adoption and testing of new approaches such as social accountability, good agricultural practice (GAP), total quality management, and hazard analysis at critical control points (HACCP) ensures the quality and safety of products and acceptable social performance.

Thanks for your sharing your views, @Lorenzo and @arshimehboob!

The issue of traceability also came up in our Future of Forests Community. One of the possible breakthroughs we discussed there (which didn’t make it into the final product) was a tracking system for wood products:

Could something like that work for food products?

@Evan_Fraser, @StephanieDaniels, what do you think?

Yes, it could work and in Italy it’s already a reality thanks to some food-distribution chains that have a high safety awareness. It’s also mandated by law that food origin is clearly stated even on labels. At the same time, other countries are way behind on this (not just underdeveloped ones, for example the US has this problem), because it touches on protection of trademarks, which is still a sensitive area even in many developed countries. Example: Italian Parmigiano cheese is a protected trademark in Italy, with very strict rules on where the animals have to come from, which land they can graze on and so on, but not everywhere abroad. So you get lots of fakes abrod and also a lot of “italian sounding” (products which aren’t Italian, are of lower quality, but use Italian-sounding names to confuse the consumer): so for example “Parmesan” is a clear fake, but not everyone recognizes it. So a QR code would go a long way and is something that might be needed - even just country and region of origin would be a good start.

Thank you @Lorenzo and @arshimehboob for your inputs. You not only highlight some of the challenges in distribution/processing such as food safety, price fluctuations (affecting producers and consumers), and limitations in access to small-scale food producers, but also some recommendations and mitigation strategies.

It seems like some sort of advanced traceability and connectivity innovations could be some of the answers here!

@jyotiV, @ismael_gerhardt, @Hargol, you may have thoughts on this topic as well. What do you think are the biggest challenges in food distribution and processing?

Absolutely. Insects are know as a very efficient protein source. They are healthier for humans and much more sustainable to grow.

@Hargol is traceability possible with insects? It seems to me that it would need to be a relatively low-tech solution (similar to what @Lorenzo discussed re: cheese) but i suppose there is no reason that a higher tech solution could evolve in the future. is there anything you’re aware of currently?

@Athma, given your expertise in food processing, you might be able to help us answer some of the questions @Caroline posed as well.

@timsilman absolutely yes. It is a key issue this new industry have to have. Currently we’re aware of low tech solutions.

@Hargol interesting, thanks for the input! I’m sure there are some unique challenges for insects that may not apply to other types of food or agricultural products.

@timsilman sure. Some insect such as mealworms and BSF can eat almost any organic matter and even plastics which is a significant risk.

@Hargol ah! interesting. i was thinking of tracking as more of factor around tracing provenance from a certification/marketing perspective but this is a great point about the major health issues associated as well with regards to insects. thanks!

I see three technologies as particularly promising in assisting with food traceability. Two of these address the source of the product, the third verifies the product authenticity.

Blockchain technology has been discussed as a solution for determining the provenance of food. It is not a perfect solution as evidenced by current cryptocurrency issues. But, it is relatively new. Give it time to develop. However, the pessimist in me thinks that as the blockchain technology improves, so will the creativity of people looking to cheat system.

Another method involves the use of stable isotopes of elements. There are global gradients of a number of different isotopes (north/south and east/west) that can be assembled into a matrix. Flesh or plant material could be analyzed for a number of these isotopes and a probability of the general location of capture or origin could be assessed. This would probably only work for wild sourced food not cultivated. While expensive, as the technology develops it could be useful in catching some of the cheaters.

DNA Barcoding is now a simple and relatively cheap method to assess authenticity of labelled products. Not useful for processed foods. But, for meat, fish and fowl this technology works well. An acquaintance of mine claimed to have verified the authenticity the kangaroo burger he had at lunch through barcoding. Seems that this technique works on processed and cooked flesh!

Perhaps a combination of these techniques and technologies, possibly combined with other established methodologies can limit fraud and enhance food safety.

Food Processing is one of the most accessible means of livelihood generation within the world, but one of the most opaque industries to enter and succeed at. Food processing offers a dual approach to poverty reduction and livelihood generation with minimal barriers to entry, but the potential of causing harm, whether directly from unhygienic food handling practices, or indirectly through production of packaging waste and negative health impacts will always plague the food industry.

One thing we have noted - within food manufacturing industries, most interventions suggested are focused on large scale industries, while within most countries, food manufacturing is still primarily situated in small industries. We have large companies able to integrate block chain and extensive traceability initiatives. But again, within most countries, most food manufacturers are small scale, and lack the skills and resources to be able to implement integrated IT solutions. In many countries, I’m speaking of Canada in particular because it is where I do most of my work, we are not even able to get a skilled workforce to be able to implement and maintain these systems. The same could be said about environment and health. We can’t find the skilled workers who are able to provide leadership into these areas.

So from a root cause analysis perspective, a lot of our innovation challenges link back to education and skills of the workforce, and the ability to problemsolve, and foster new approaches to manufacturing.

I work with a number of organizations across the world on the skills gap in food manufacturing and food science. There are many typical post-secondary schools around the world that deliver the traditional individualistic-hierarchical teaching methods, and few schools or non-traditional platforms that are offering skills development specifically targeting food processing skills development in distributive or collectivist models.

So I’m all for creative ideas, but until we can attract a skilled workforce to implement the ideas, they will be limited only to the largest and most rich of companies, a strongest link strategy. So let’s instead focus on a weakest link strategy, and develop the skilled workforce of the future, looking at diversified teaching and learning strategies to get food processing skills into the hands of those willing to innovate in their communities.

@kbehrendt, @Shulbert, @schiller, you might have thoughts on this topic as well. What do you think are the biggest challenges in food processing and distribution?