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Ryan E. Day

Supply Chain

Recipe for Food Supply-Chain Security

A tale of two production models

Published: Monday, April 8, 2013 - 11:11

When discussing supply-chain security, what could be more important than the security of our food supply? In view of the fact that we die if we don't eat, I'd say food supply-chain security ranks very high indeed. Unfortunately, the food supply system that has developed across much of the world can only be described as industrial food production (IFP). Recent debacles such as pink slime, meat glue, and horseburgers perfectly demonstrate the frailty and risk presented by the long and convoluted road of the IFP supply chain.

First, what is industrial food production?

IFP begins with industrial agriculture, which views the farm as a factory with “inputs” (such as pesticides, feed, fertilizer, and fuel) and “outputs” (corn, chickens, etc.). Modern farming methods depend on synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, large amounts of irrigation, major transportation systems, factory-style practices for raising livestock, and machine technology.

The goal is to increase yield per acre and decrease costs of production, usually by exploiting economies of scale.

Next comes food processing. Gargantuan amounts of meat, poultry, fruits, and vegetables are sent to relatively few large processing plants to become the food "product" that ends up at supermarkets and restaurants.

In a National Public Radio interview, Patrick Boyle, CEO of the American Meat Institute, explained, "Four companies account for more than 80 percent of the beef capacity in the United States."

In many cases such as the New York dairy industry, more than two-thirds of all supermarket milk is provided by only four processors. According to a Food & Water Watch report, “The four largest firms processed two-thirds of the milk (66.2 percent) in the Boston metropolitan area in 1997, but the top four processed 88.1 percent of the milk by 1999.”

And as pointed out in an article in the Forbes article "America's Biggest Food Companies", the bottom line is, “If you’ve joined the ranks of those who are taking an interest in where their food comes from, it could be an interesting exercise to examine your own pantry. Even products that are marketed with hip branding that invokes a vibe of independence, it’s likely that brand has been snatched up by one of these powerful food giants.”

Even if we omit any heated discussion concerning synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, GMOs, preservatives, artificial colors, flavorings, and sweeteners, MSG, high fructose corn syrup, land depletion due to mass scale monoculture, antibiotics, and hormones in animal feed that are passed on to those consuming the animals, food animals living their entire lives in confined animal farming operations (CAFO) wading in their own excrement, and top regulatory officials who may have more than a wee conflict of interest—we still have a supply chain built on the worst of two worlds.

On one hand, industrial food processors must look to global suppliers to obtain the necessary volume of product to operate successfully within their business model—meaning processors source from a few suppliers that source from many smaller suppliers and even family farms and butcher shops. The longer and more widely scattered that supply chain is, the more vulnerable it is to traceability, quality, and health issues.

On the other hand, the number of industrial food processors is rather small compared to the huge volume of end users it serves. A problem at one processing location affects thousands of grocery stores, restaurants, and people down line. Whether it be food safety or simply supply, any hitch in the system has widespread impact.

Can anyone say “risk management?”

Although there is much controversy surrounding industrial food production, many people are unaware that there is an alternative—local food production.

The practice of consuming locally grown food product (locavorism) is enjoying a groundswell of enthusiasm among consumers. Reasons range from mere popularity to all of the aforementioned health and humane controversies surrounding industrial food. Supply-chain security is rarely discussed among locavores, but the benefits of a minimal chain are indeed worthy of note.

For instance:
• Disruptions in the supply of product affect relatively few people in comparison to the industrial model.
• The existence of many food producers as suppliers means that when there is a disruption of supply, consumers can still obtain food from a neighboring city or county.
• Local food producers/suppliers are often close enough for consumers to physically visit their facilities in order to determine acceptability of a specific producer’s processes and products.
• When health risks inevitably arise, fewer people are affected, and traceability is far easier.

One drawback that comes to my mind is this: If one purchases food from a producer that is not government-agency-certified-safe (assuming one sees value in government agency assurance), one is left with the personal responsibility of educating oneself and then performing due diligence to minimize health risks to said self.

Wait, did I say drawback?


About The Author

Ryan E. Day’s picture

Ryan E. Day

Ryan E. Day is Quality Digest’s project manager and senior editor for solution-based reporting, which brings together those seeking business improvement solutions and solution providers. Day has spent the last decade researching and interviewing top business leaders and continuous improvement experts at companies like Sakor, Ford, Merchandize Liquidators, Olympus, 3D Systems, Hexagon, Intertek, InfinityQS, Johnson Controls, FARO, and Eckel Industries. Most of his reporting is done with the help of his 20-lb tabby cat at his side.


A "day" in the life ...

... dear Mr. Day. Italy's "Slow Food" restaurants chain, as opposed to fast food, was somewhat successful, until the end of the past Century. But  industrial people are less and less concerned with food quality: we need to eat, sure, "we want it, and we want it now". No matter what. This says a lot about the relevance that we give to our life quality: we care much more for the car we buy, for how we dress, for where we go for vacation, than for what we'll eat once there. How many and how severe cases are being recorded of tourists been intoxicated by food in foreign Countries? I was born in a small farm, we ate the animals, the vegetables and the fruit we grew - but it took TIME. An apparently simple vegetable soup takes a lot of time to make it ready to eat, from roots to dish: what housewife can nowadays afford the time to do it? Buy it frozen, microwave-heat it and serve it: that's not the rule, but the "shall". Thank you.

Choosing a lifestyle for health and hapiness

Funny you should use the term “slow food.” In the U.S. there actually is an awakening of sorts concerning the quality of food, food production, and life (I cannot speak for where I do not live). There is even a nationwide community called Slow Food USA. Other organizations such as the Weston A. Price Foundation are having great success teaching youngsters and oldsters alike the value of local, organic, sustainably, and humanely raised food. With over 16,000 members, and 450 chapters worldwide, the foundation stresses nutrient dense foods prepared in the old world traditional methods. It appears that many people are questioning the wisdom of choosing large mortgages, after school sports, and 3 cars instead of a long term relationship with their and their children’s health.

Food Supply Chain Security

Excellent article.  I find many of the articles and editorials in the Quality Digest Daily to be very informative and I'd like to share them.  It's rather frustrating that there is no link to share them on LinkedIn or Twitter.  Quality Digest needs to move into the new communication age!

New communication age

Thanks for the compliment. I couldn't agree more, we're working on transmogrifying into the new millenium.