If you're like me, salt, carbs, pizza, wine and chocolate make up your five food groups. Which means, like me, you probably don't think too much about the safety of what you are consuming. 

But we all should. An increasing number of alarming food recalls makes this a good time to look at how supply chains can deliver the ultimate — safe — customer experience.

How Safe Are Our Supply Chains?

In one of the largest food recalls ever, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a recall of millions of packages of fruits and vegetables due to mysterious listeria-linked illnesses. Well over 400 frozen food products sold under more than 40 different brand names at major retailers were involved. 

This is not an isolated incident. 

The FDA reports, “About 48 million people (1 in 6 Americans) get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die each year from foodborne diseases, according to recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This is a significant public health burden that is largely preventable.”

Over the past month alone, products have been recalled for E.coli contamination, suspected listeria in sunflower seeds, and, in perhaps the cruelest blow of all, Hostess recalled 710,00 cases of snack foods. 

That's why the importance of traceability — the ability to track any food through the extended supply chain, all stages of production, processing and distribution — is rising on corporate and public agendas.  

Farm to Table Needs a Label

Traceability requires proper labeling, whether the supply chain extends from farm to table or, in the case of seafood, from ocean to plate.

Responsibility is often laid at the feet of suppliers. And they are responding. 

Voluntary supply chain traceability schemes have been developed to ensure the integrity of seafood supply chains, like the Marine Stewardship Council’s (MSC) Chain of Custody Standard. Covering over 3000 seafood suppliers, distributors and processors across the world, it assures consumers that the MSC-labelled seafood has been sourced legally from a sustainably managed source, has not been mixed with uncertified seafood, and can be traced along the supply chain from ocean to plate.

Governments around the world are also recognizing the danger of incorrect labelling. The FDA, the Food Standards Agency in the UK, the European Food Safety Authority, and Food Standards Australia New Zealand have all committed extensive resources to ensure traceability. 

The recently completed FDA Food Safety Modernization Act mandates “comprehensive, prevention-based controls across the food supply to prevent or significantly minimize the likelihood of problems occurring.” The Act gives the FDA recall authority for all food products and expanded administrative detention of products that are potentially in violation of the law. The legislation also recognizes the importance of strengthening collaboration among all food safety agencies to achieve public health goals. 

Entrepreneurs are contributing as well. Fortune recently reported, “As people demand to know exactly how food gets to their table, those who can answer that question will profit. Red’s Best, a Boston-based seafood purveyor that unloads fishing vessels, has developed an app that reveals the origins of each fish, so restaurants can share the information on their menus.”

While these initiatives and mandates can have a beneficial impact, driving safety for the customer along the end-to-end food chain is going to require focus and action from all the supply chain leaders.

The Perfect Customer Experience, the Perfect Order

Supply chain leaders focus on the customer, and realize that brand power depends on their contribution to food quality and transparency. Consumers seek these qualities in the food they buy, and social media has raised the bar, making it easier for consumers to force transparency on companies.  

A few years back, I highlighted the trending best practices for high performing supply chains in "Supply Chain Symphony": 

“What differentiates the best supply chain companies from the rest is an unwavering focus across the business on the customer and, for the future, the technology to be able to integrate and leverage that focus.”

In their focus on customer experience, supply chain leaders’ holy grail is the pursuit of the “perfect order” — the right product, delivered in full, on time, every time. 

One of the hardest things to do is successfully synchronize all the parts of the supply chain to achieve a perfect order. Imperfections creep in due to data inaccuracies, broken or disconnected processes, and lack of visibility into what is occurring. While automation has helped to improve order-to-cash and procure-to-pay cycles in the supply chain, management of supply chain disruptions, exceptions and safety breaches remains a thorny problem.

Responsive Technology 

The true test of a high-performance supply network happens in exception handling, "when good orders go bad." An order is far from perfect if it must be recalled for safety issues. 

As supply chain leaders look to increase safety and recall responsiveness throughout the supply chain, they should consider technology that has already helped them address their “perfect order” problems.  

In "Relieve Supply Chain Stress" I described how adaptive case management technology can help. First, it enables transparency and the ability to see problems, then it helps route the problems to get them addressed via a compliant process that includes automation, human tasks and workflow progression through informed decisions.

Case management technology brings disparate systems together — integrating cross-system and automating to take care of the majority of situations. It also serves to enable collaboration and inform exception handling — providing a unified view of information plus guardrails for knowledge workers to handle the exceptions. This avoids delays where the process instance or the human involved in the process needs to track down the information required to make a good decision.

While it might not completely eliminate supply disruptions or safety issues along the value chain, case management can help organizations be responsive in quality exception and recall situations.  

Eat This, Not That

The complexity of the global food chain is increasing. Visibility and traceability are more important than ever in efforts to delight customers. 

McKinsey tells us, “To provide a distinctive experience for customers, an organization must unite around the goal of meeting their true needs. Done well, the effort can power a vast amount of innovation.”

Meeting “true needs” should include technology that delivers safer supply chains through well-managed exception handling and responsive recall capabilities. 

So what does it mean to deliver the ultimate customer experience? My top priority is safe chocolate that is delicious, yet magically adds no calories to my diet .... 

Title image "We Deliver!" (CC BY 2.0) by  BhowardE