Exclusive: Three ways innovation is set to transform the fresh produce supply chain

The fresh produce supply chain was once pretty much invisible, but today’s consumers are eager to know the story of how and where their food is grown and packaged.

It's a story that impacts upon the growers, the shippers and the wholesalers, as well as both small and major retailers across the UK.

A recent report from Innovative Fresh and Pink Sky stated: “It is increasingly important to talk to customers about food production, food miles, ingredients, health, ethics and value. Innovation in supply chain management from field to fork will form an enormous part of the future of food production”.

Freshtalk Daily has taken a look at the many innovations surrounding the fresh produce supply chain and has selected three use cases that we feel will most impact the industry in the coming months.

1. Produce tracking through ‘Big Data’

The confusion surrounding the fresh produce supply chain under the cloud of Brexit has meant that the volatility of goods, in terms of logistics, has never been greater.

Keeping track of the freshness levels of perishables is vital, so innovations that use data (in the form of digital records) are set to make a huge impact upon fresh produce inventory.

Companies like IBM are investing heavily in product tracking innovation and ‘Cloud’ information storage for both importers and exporters to provide a freshness knowledge-base for the industry.

IMD Professor, Ralf Seifert, who specialises in digitalization trends in the supply chain explains that:

“Having digital records for the entry and exit of products at each stage of the supply chain can help ensure a ‘first in, first out’ policy for fresh produce, which will decrease inventory age – and therefore reduce shrinkage due to spoilage.

“Digital supply chain solutions, therefore, provide enormous potential for accurate demand forecasting and better inventory management. “

Dr. John Ryan, a global food safety expert, agrees that digital-tracking is the way of the future, adding: “When food enters a transportation area, it basically becomes invisible. Nobody knows where it is. Nobody knows what conditions it’s being shipped under. The old adage rings true; you can’t manage what you can’t measure.”

2. Robotics in agriculture

The lack of seasonal workers has, over recent years, been a huge bone of contention for UK growers, so its no surprise that innovation in this arena is set to make a huge impact.

Fieldwork Robotics, a spin-out from the University of Plymouth, have recently made headlines with the successful trial of their raspberry picking robot, developed in partnership with Hall Hunter, one of Britain’s main berry growers, who supply Tesco, Marks & Spencer and Waitrose.

The developers explain: “Guided by sensors and 3D cameras, the robot’s gripper picks a raspberry in 10 seconds or less and drops it in a tray where the fruit gets sorted by maturity, before being moved into punnets, ready to be transported to supermarkets.

“The final robot version, which we hope will go into production next year, will have four grippers, all picking simultaneously.”

3. Enabling a ‘Just in Time’ supply chain ethos

Modern AI technology, such as Machine Learning, can provide real-time visibility into supply and demand data and allow smaller retailers to purchase only what their customers want, in turn, minimising waste and maximising freshness.

One retailer who has adopted a ‘Just in Time’ approach to supply chain management is online grocery store, PicNic.

Their supply chain planner, Linda Rietveld, explains why the small US-based company is flourishing as a result of the decision:

“A just-in-time supply chain is a simple concept: minimise the number of goods held in stock. Perishable goods (apples, avocados, etc) become part of a fluid supply chain and never sit for long periods in storage. This reduces the time between harvest and consumption, maximising freshness for all the products that our customers order.

Using the latest supply and demand data allows us to only purchase what customers want. That accuracy means that, unlike conventional supermarkets, we don’t keep an oversupply of goods, thus minimising waste across our supply chain.

Working alongside wholesalers, the 'Just in Time' approach is gaining traction within the smaller retail arena in the UK and has already been shown to make an impact upon food waste and shrinkage levels.