Knowing where food comes from and how it was grown is a top priority in an increasing number of American households. But aside from costly technological solutions employed by large, vertically-integrated corporations, very little exists to follow food throughout fragmented food systems from ‘farm to fork.’ The Whole Chain Traceability Consortium (WCTC) aims to change that, and to make it available on smart phones.
I interviewed several key players in the Consortium about the product they are creating, how they are incentivizing companies to share data, and how their technologies differ from that of IBM and Microsoft. Oklahoma State University Professor of Agricultural Economics Dr. Brian Adam, and Dr. Michael Buser, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering, participated. Steve Holcombe is with Pardalis, Inc.
Beth Hoffman: Who is the Whole Chain Traceability Consortium and what are your goals?
Steve Holcombe: The Whole Chain Traceability Consortium (WCTC)* is an informally constructed project currently comprised at its core of researchers, educators, extension specialists and collaborators at Oklahoma State University, North Dakota State University, Michigan State University, the University of Arkansas, and my company, Pardalis, Inc., an Oklahoma advanced information technology company.
One of the end goals of the WCTC is for consumers to be able to point a smart phone at a food product bar code, and retrieve a global sourcing map and reliable information about all the steps a product took from the farm to the store. This access will help save people’s lives in a food safety recall and verify sustainable agricultural practices. We will also be able to learn more from consumers about their personal experiences with food products.
BH: What is the problem with the way information about food is currently shared?
SH: The first thing to grasp is that the Internet is achieved via layered, network protocols. Transmitted data, flowing through these layers, are enriched with metadata necessary for the correct presentation to end users. But, to paraphrase Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, the Web was originally conceived as a network for researchers who trusted one another implicitly. As a result trust and provenance were not built into the Internet or the Web.
The effect of this on food supply chains is what we call “one-up/one down” information sharing. [More on that below]
The WCTC is addressing this challenge with “whole chain” information sharing. This is a new way of looking at information sharing, and there are only a handful of projects doing so. The Content-Centric Networking Project at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center, for example, is one of those projects. Essentially, the end result will be greater opportunities for efficient scalability in the Cloud in an increasingly mobile, wireless and networked world.
BH: Can you explain the “one up, one down” system and how the consortium envisions something different?
Brian Adam: Right now the FDA requires, and most industries practice, “one up, one down” – each business knows a little information about who they bought items from and to whom they sold it. A grain elevator, for example, knows the truck the grain came in on, and the barge where it left, but usually not more than that.
When sharing more information, you get into questions of competition, and of how much companies want to share. Right now, not much is shared. We are trying to make that traceability go further up and down the supply chain. Even if you don’t know five steps away from you, we want you to be able to find that out easily.
It is about revealing more than just the traceability of a product, but not so much that you give away your company secrets. And for the data to be shared – for the industry to go from the one up, one down system to a really transparent one where data is more fluid throughout the chain – there has to be more incentive throughout.
Internationally, too, the technology to trace products is the same, but the supply chains are very different – and so there are different incentives and challenges in tracing the information.
BH: How does this kind of system differ from those being created by companies like IBM and Microsoft?
SH: IBM, Microsoft, Oracle, SAP and others provide very good one-up/one down information sharing technologies for vertically integrated companies and federated trade organizations. For instance, IBM’s Smarter Planet initiative is very exciting and is addressing the need for real-time access with sensors and analytics. But by and large these companies are maintaining the status quo of one-up/one-down information sharing because that’s where they make their profits. The challenge that these companies have been side-stepping is how to share information in fragmented supply chains.
BA: For example, the U.S. beef industry is a fragmented supply chain in which the product goes through many hands and changes form many times. That is because beef, like practically any other product, is part of a fragmented global supply chain.
Consumers are increasingly seeking access to real-time, trustworthy information about where in the world a product comes from, whether it was raised in a sustainable fashion, whether it is safe to eat or use, etc. And industry stakeholders are beginning to realize that such consumer access can positively affect their bottom line profits.
BH: How is what you are talking about different from third party certifications, where a group outside confirms that the whole chain adheres to certain criteria like fair wages or organic practices?
BA: In fact, a goal of the WCTC is to introduce greater efficiencies into the third party certification processes. It’s not just the supply chains that are fragmented, the service providers along the supply chains are also highly fragmented. Fragmentation of any kind increases costs. Those can be the costs of bringing a product to market, but they can also be the cost of omitted or missing information which is lost to the frictions of one-up/one-down information sharing.
The participant researchers of the WCTC have been highly influenced by the existing data showing that many consumers do not take appropriate protective actions during a foodborne illness outbreak or food recall. Many U.S. consumers say they have never looked for any recalled product in their home. Conversely, many consumers overreact to broadcast announcements of a foodborne illness outbreak or food recall. That translates into costs to industry of lost sales from consumers fearful of purchasing products that are actually safe. Consumer accessibility is about providing real-time, reliable information to consumers about the products they have purchased, and the products they are considering purchasing, that both save lives and protect the bottom-line profits of industry stakeholders.
SH: The real-time sharing of information via social networking sites is dramatically raising expectations of consumers. They want information they can trust in real-time. They want supply chains to be more transparent in real-time. This means an inevitable shift toward highly scalable, highly efficient Cloud based platforms that introduce trust in information sharing and add value to existing one-up/one-down platforms.
BH: Talk a little bit more about how Whole Chain Traceability would work?
SH: For example, say a cattle rancher has a long list of data characteristics available about each animal – its breed, pharmaceutical use, age, the feed it consumed, etc. Today, with the best one-up/one-down, multi-tenancy platforms the rancher puts that information in a bucket under one identifier. In our whole chain multi-tenancy platform there is instead a unique, immutable identity assigned to each piece of information. Our system would allow this information to be granularly shared, or not shared, on a network at each transactional juncture in a fragmented supply chain. Information producers like the rancher could track and control who accesses the information and who sees it. So the rancher could see the winding pathway of an animal sold a dozen times and could see the complete trace report. Food recall agencies could additionally be provided granular access – with permission of the information producer – to food safety data.
Michael Buser: That does not happen today. This is a new kind of information sharing that increases the choices for transparency in supply chains. It recognizes that the rancher is not just producing a calf, the rancher is also producing information that itself has value.
BA: Since that information has value, there may be opportunities within a supply chain for owners of that information to be compensated for making it available. For example, meat packers may be willing to pay more for animals whose source or immunization history is identified.
BH: Talk about your idea of “sharing is winning,” and who will own the system?
SH: “Sharing is winning” in the context of the WCTC is about universities, industry stakeholders and consumers joining together to overcome systemic challenges to real-time information sharing in ag and food supply chain. We have been heavily influenced in this regard by the publication, Reinventing R&D in an Open Innovation Ecosystem, by Helmut Traitler, Heribert J. Watzke, and Sam Saguy. The authors highlight how Nestlé’s Innovation Partnerships and Sharing-is-Winning model is being utilized as a paradigm-shifting driving force for the reinvention of R&D leading to commercialization.
One may reasonably expect that APIs (application programming interfaces) will commonly be open sourced in order to help encourage industry adoption of Pardalis’ core database system. Furthermore, Pardalis is committed to a global strategy providing patent-hardened, open source licensing of its core database system.
* In addition to those interviewed, WCTC is made up of many organizations. The point person at North Dakota State University is Dr. Deland Myers, Professor and Director, School of Food Systems, and at Michigan State University Dr. John Stone is the Co-Director and Sr. Research Scientist, at the Center for the Study of Standards in Society. The point person at the University of Arkansas is Dr. Jean-Francois Meullenet, Head and Professor, Department of Food Science. These institutions are joined together by “sharing is winning” principles.
Domestic collaborators with the WCTC include the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation, Top 10 Produce, LLC and SourceMap. International collaborators include the EU funded Smart Agri-Food Project at the Wageningen University and Research Centre in the Netherlands, the Strategic Research on Key Technology of Agricultural Information Technology project funded by National Science Foundation of China, and the Gartner AMR Supply Chain Group, Switzerland.