In Divisive Times, We’re Still United by the Food Supply Chain

Stephen DeAngelis

December 3, 2019

The United States as well as the broader world appear more divisive every day. Yet one economic sector — food and drink — helps bring people together. “America is a big place,” writes Mike Pomranz (@pomranz). “But according to a recent study out of the University of Illinois, even if you have never traveled around the United States, the food you eat (or at least elements of it) certainly has.”[1] He reports, “A team from the University of Illinois looked at the 9.5 million links connecting 3,142 counties in America’s food supply chain.” To help people understand how the food supply chain connects them, “the researchers developed what they called the Food Flow Model which ‘integrates machine learning, network properties, production and consumption statistics, mass balance constraints, and linear programming.’ … The team combined information from eight databases — including things like freight routes — to see how America’s 3,142 counties and county-equivalents were linked together by food supply chains.” Megan Konar, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Illinois, told Pomranz, “I hope the main takeaway for most people is the realization that we are all connected. Urban consumers and rural producers rely on one another and are intermediated by food processors and distributors. Americans are interconnected through our expansive food supply chain, which relies on critical and interconnected civil engineering infrastructure.”


Of course, Americans also obtain food from beyond national borders. Sean Crossey notes, “The global food supply chain brings us exotic fresh foods from around the world. But the challenges in ensuring affordable and healthy food are enormous.”[2] In fact, the University of Illinois study highlighted “the importance of border counties like Niagara County and port cities like New Orleans.” Stated another way, in spite of the divisive time in which we live, the world is still united by the food supply chain. Although that is good news, Konar and others are warning the food supply chain, and the infrastructure supporting it, can’t be taken for granted.


Challenges facing the food supply chain


Konar observes, “Right now, our nation’s civil engineering infrastructure has a grade of ‘D+’ from the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). I am confident that this work, and research that builds on it, will help us to understand how we can most effectively prioritize investment in our nation’s critical food supply infrastructure.” Improving national infrastructure should be an issue both U.S. political parties can support. Crossey identifies five other challenges he believes confront the global food supply chain. They are:


1. Traceability: Tracking Food in the Supply Chain. Crossey notes, “Traceability is no longer a request from consumers, but a demand, and one that is only growing stronger.” Like Crossey, Alicia Dimas, Content Executive at the Chartered Quality Institute (CQI), asserts, “A complex and sophisticated global food supply chain is needed to deliver the variety of foods consumers have come to expect on supermarket shelves.”[3] And like Crossey, she believes better tracking is essential. She explains, “The food supply-chain is not always front-and-center of a consumers’ mind, however, if things go wrong then its important to know the details of the intricate supply journey.” Crossey concludes, “This kind of consumer-requested, information opens up a world of possibilities for companies who recognize how significant this demand is. Companies that take steps to guarantee the authenticity of their products can build their customer base, customer loyalty and protect their brands.” Food supply chain stakeholders from food producers all the way through food service providers have a role to play.


2. Transparency. Transparency is different than traceability because it has a moral dimension. Transparency helps answer the question: Is food produced, raised, or caught in a humane way? Many analysts believe the use of blockchain technology can help with both traceability and transparency; however, that is only true if a proactive inspection program is implemented to ensure humane conditions are found throughout the supply chain.


3. Trust: Trusted Partners and Technology. Traceability and transparency can help foster trust. Crossey notes, “Nowhere is the need to modify our trust model more apparent than with our food supply. In such a complex system it becomes necessary to move from traditional systems of centralized trust to a distributed network that enables strict monitoring and auditing. New technologies can help. Technologies such as multi-party networks, provide real-time visibility to all parties in the supply chain. They can also provide item-level track and trace, and a chain of custody, protecting against fraud, contamination and theft. Such tracking not only prevents and deters food fraud, it can also mitigate its effects if it does happen.” Dimas adds, “Even with technology taking quality control to new levels, relationships will remain key to managing and maintaining a successful supply chain. A close working relationship and trust, is critical to attaining exceptional quality performance within any supply chain.”


4. Threat: Organized Crime and Food Fraud. Crossey and Dimas both discuss cases of food fraud and adulterated products. Crossey notes, “Counterfeit food and drink occurs on a massive scale throughout the whole of Europe. … It is vital that governments devote resources to organizations dedicated to identifying food crime.” Dimas notes, “Digital Ledger Technology (DLT [aka blockchain]) will transform the way data is handled and how companies share food safety and quality information in the very near future. This technology has the power and potential to revolutionize food safety and quality — provided that data is clean and validated.”


5. Tighter Legislation: Need for Strong Legislation. Both Crossey and Dimas argue for better regulation. Dimas notes, “There is currently no uniform regulatory system in the food industry.” Crossey adds, “The first step is to recognize that there is a problem. By putting a focus on ‘food fraud,’ and more clearly defining what constitutes ‘food fraud’ and what the consequences are, lawmakers will be in a position to prioritize the problem and allocate the necessary resources to tackle it.”


Concluding thoughts


Steve Banker (@steve_scm), Vice President of Supply Chain Services at ARC Advisory Group, observes, “The global food supply chain is complex, vast, and vital to human existence. Not surprisingly, when there are disruptions to the food supply chain, it makes major headlines. … Consumers are paying more attention to where food, and food ingredients, come from and the environmental impacts of these sourcing decisions.”[4] Because the food supply chain is vital to human existence, it unites us in a way few other activities can. As we move forward, we need to encourage policymakers to improve infrastructure and strengthen regulations. We need to encourage producers, forwarders, transporters, warehousers, and retailers to be involved in traceability and transparency issues. And we need to appreciate how the food supply chain brings us together as a human race.


[1] Mike Pomranz, “What Really Unites Americans? Our Food Supply,” Food & Wine, 30 October 2019.
[2] Sean Crossey, “The Five Ts of the Global Food Supply Chain,” The Network Effect, 9 March 2017.
[3] Alicia Dimas, “Keeping track of the food journey,” Supply Chain Digital, 1 June 2019.
[4] Steve Banker, “The Global Food Supply Chain Faces Daunting Challenges in the Coming Decades, Forbes, 10 October 2019.