It’s not unreasonable for consumers to expect fresh, safe, and delicious food on their tables at mealtime. But the job of getting food to the right places at the right time has become increasingly challenging.
The global food supply chain is one of the most important logistics processes our society needs for sustainability. While consumers and even some businesses just assume it’s a finely-tuned machine, the truth is something much different. Here is what you need to know about the food supply chain, why it’s so complex, and how we can work to overcome some of the biggest challenges in this process.
What is the Food Supply Chain?
The food supply chain refers to the process of preparing and delivering food from start to finish. There are six main steps in the typical food supply chain:
- Raw material procurement
- Processing and packaging
- Wholesale distribution
- Retail sales
Food supply chains work similar to any other supply chain, albeit with more regulations and compliance to ensure food safety standards are met.
How the Food Supply Chain Has Become So Complex
Just a few short centuries ago, people secured food for their tables by hunting, gathering, and growing. Some of that still happens. But, by and large, most people are accustomed to getting the food they want and need by walking into a restaurant or their nearest grocery store.
But these food outlets are just one step in the long journey a product makes from farm to fork. Until the COVID-19 pandemic happened, many believed the food supply chain worked flawlessly. It turns out that it’s fundamentally flawed and complex.
The current food supply chain is a robust network that includes farms, factories, transporters, and warehouses that transform agricultural materials into food ready for consumption. According to data from the USDA, the food supply chain relies on over 19.7 million full- and part-time workers in various industries.
A single disruption in the supply chain may not seem significant at the time it occurs. But, with such a fragile balance, it has the potential to disrupt and even collapse the entire system.
The Biggest Challenges in the Food Supply Chain and Potential Solutions
With many grocery stores and restaurants facing empty shelves and product shortages, the recent pandemic has underscored some stark vulnerabilities in the food supply chain. Here are some of the biggest challenges facing the U.S. food supply chain and some ways to address them.
1. Farming and Labor Shortages
The first and most important step in the food supply chain is farming meats, fruits, vegetables, grains, and other items. Most farms need certain types of labor to complete these operations. COVID-19 has impacted migrant and domestic worker availability, creating severe shortages on farms, in processing plants, and throughout the food supply chain.
Labor shortages are expected to remain pervasive throughout the U.S. for the foreseeable future. Some of the ways businesses can maintain productivity with worker shortages include:
- Explore alternate equipment — You can get more done with fewer workers by exploring various advances in machinery and equipment.
- Change production systems — You may be able to reduce some field operations by switching from conventional tillage to non-till, for example.
- Leverage new technology — Tools like drones and autonomous machinery can reduce the need for human labor.
2. Lack of Traceability
Traceability, which is the ability to track a food product through all the stages of the supply chain, is a major tripping point with the current system. First, many consumers want to know where their food products come from. Second, it’s hard to achieve efficiency in the supply chain when you have multiple blind spots. Third, the inability to track and trace food products can lead to regulatory issues, particularly when there is a contamination problem.
The good news is there are some ready solutions to traceability and tracking. Many businesses have been using barcodes for years to track products, which is a workable solution. Another technology that is even more advanced is RFID, which are tags that can be read en masse and provide real-time tracking throughout the supply chain. Some suppliers are also experimenting with blockchain as a promising technology to store and share information across a network in real-time.
3. Communication Breakdowns
Lack of communication between suppliers and fragmented information can have a significant impact on the food supply chain. This is because there isn’t any knowledge of what each party is doing or not doing. Poor communication leads to inefficiency, errors, and excessive waste.
There isn’t much excuse for lack of communication in today’s society, considering the technology solutions available. Businesses throughout the supply chain can agree to share information via cloud-based networks and wireless solutions that provide real-time tracking as well as allow communication through things like live chat.
4. Poor Inventory Control
Another area that seems to experience a lot of problems in the supply chain is with inventory control. If businesses want to control costs, satisfy customers, and maintain quality, they must be able to manage their inventory properly. Too much inventory and food will expire, spoil, and go to waste. Too little and customers will be dissatisfied, and the business will lose money.
Inventory management can become seamless with the right warehouse management system (WMS). These systems include inventory management solutions that provide visibility into your inventory. When combined with RFID tags and wireless technology for picking and packing, that visibility and tracking are elevated to give businesses the information they need to achieve the highest level of efficiency.
The past several years have exposed a lack of flexibility in the food supply chain, leading to a myriad of disruptions. To overcome these challenges, businesses will need to thoroughly review their processes and implement new strategies that better react to fluctuating supply and demand as well as provide the best customer experience possible.