Recipe for disaster

Technology can help prevent food contamination -- but only if IT gets involved

There have been so many food contamination episodes in the past several months -- tainted spinach at the supermarket, bad green onions at Taco Bell, salmonella in our beloved peanut butter, courtesy of Peter Pan -- that I decided to do a little digging and see whether technology can take a role in the prevention of future outbreaks.

The truth is, IT may actually be part of the problem rather than the solution, but it doesn't have to be that way.

Let me give you what I think is the bigger picture. 

If all IT wants to be is the dumb pipe, an at-your-service kind of organization that plays no role in the bigger decisions, then IT is certainly part of the problem. But if IT wants to be part of the solution, and sit at the boardroom table, IT has to be willing to contribute ideas and strategies that demonstrate how technology can be used to reduce major risk factors such as food contamination.

Here's a couple of the IT issues I see contributing -- if only in a tangential way -- to our tainted food supply.

Issue No. 1 is data. Food bioterrorism regulations from the FDA require manufacturers to maintain records of complete traceability for all raw goods and manufactured products going back two years. Tracking the product through the supply chain, however, has nothing to do with warding off contamination. These are backward-facing requirements that trace what happened but cannot directly prevent future occurrences.

This is the point at which IT needs to step in and offer solutions. The good news is that they’re already out there.

Mark Hillman, research director of SCM at AMR Research, points to Ariba and Open Ratings, both of which offer systems that do more than look backward.

Ariba's supplier performance management solution is usually focused on whether a supplier is delivering products on time and meeting pricing terms in a contract. But it can also be used to collect data on how well food-safety guidelines have been followed. If there is any kind of delay in a weekly report, or an incident occurs, immediate notification is sent to the manufacturer.

Open Ratings looks at predictive elements and trends in the supply-chain data using analytics to see such things as variability in quality control.

Who in your organization should take responsibility for knowing about these kinds solutions? I suggest IT.

Issue No. 2 is what I would call a turf war.

Preventing contaminated food from getting into the nation’s food supply is the responsibility of three groups: the engineering/manufacturing division, the compliance organization, and IT.

Kevin Prouty, senior director of manufacturing solutions at Motorola, a device supplier, tells of a large beverage manufacturer whose engineering group is constantly fighting with IT about who selects the devices, who owns the devices -- even the configuration of the software that tracks and logs food-quality data.

This situation is not uncommon in large enterprises, Prouty says.

"It came to the point that the engineers put in their own network that ran in parallel to the IT network," Prouty told me.

A temporary truce was called at the beverage company when IT said, “You can do what you want, but you have to meet this set of criteria to be able to attach to our network.”

To my point, IT can either take a proactive approach and be part of the discussion or take a back seat at its own peril.