Can Technology Solutions Help Improve Food Safety?

Another incident of food-borne illnesses arose this week when two people in the Northeast died from ingesting E-coli contaminated beef that so far has sickened more than two dozen people.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the outbreak may be linked to ground beef packaged by Fairbank Farms in upstate New York. In response, Fairbank, while not acknowledging responsibility, has recalled some 272 tons of its ground beef products.


Last July, H.R. 2749, the Food Safety Enhancement Act of 2009, cleared the House of Representatives and went to the Senate for approval. Among a host of requirements, the Act requires food facilities to implement a safety plan including taking preventive measures in response to a set of science-based standards established by the Secretary of Health and Human Services.


Whether this current Act or another piece of legislation fills the bill, it's clear that applying some technology to upgrade safety standards and practices in the nation's food industry is well beyond obvious.


Now, IBM and two of its channel partners are trying to do something to improve food safety, working with food distributors to upgrade systems and performance levels. Officials said that the goal is to modernize the global supply chain to advance the distribution, production, safety and quality of food.


Skidmore Sales and Distributing, an Ohio-based distributor of industrial food ingredients with nine warehouse locations, recently contracted with IBM Business Partner DPS Inc., a specialist in wholesale distribution, and software provider RJS Software Systems to enhance the accuracy and timeliness of Skidmore's quality documentation which ships with every order.


The resulting solutions, which not coincidentally run on IBM's Power Systems servers, upgrade customer order processing, purchasing, receiving, inventory control and warehouse management applications.


The idea, according to Skidmore chief executive Doug Skidmore, was to create greater efficiencies at every point in the process to track each ingredient, and correspondingly, ensure better quality and safety.


"We've been able to improve productivity along with the accuracy and completeness of the quality documents our customers require with every shipment," Skidmore said.


"The ingredients we supply will ultimately end up in restaurants, institutional kitchens and on the family dinner table at the end of the day. I feel confident we've gained greater intelligence, insight and efficiencies through this technology solution," he said.


Another IBM Business Partner, MSI Systems Integrators, a specialist in data center optimization, recently provided a consolidation and virtualization solution to Perishable Distributors of Iowa, a wholesale distributor of fresh and frozen food with 210 store accounts in seven states.


PDI officials said that the nature of their business mandates that they avoid any system downtime and turn inventory at maximum every two weeks.


The IT solution is aimed at giving PDI--which maintains 350,000 feet of warehouse space to house mostly refrigerated or frozen food--higher availability and more redundancy with its IBM Power Systems, Blade Center, Storage Systems and DB2 Database.


Officials said that the system uses analytics to automate inventory turnover to bring perishable goods to market sooner and more safely.


"Working with MSI and IBM, we've been able to create a seamless operation with effectively zero downtime," said Scott Hamilton, PDI vice president of information technology. "I can't overemphasize the importance of that in our industry, where a window of even a few hours can ruin perishable food inventory and render it unfit for sale."

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