The New Frontier of Wholesaling

Harnessing Technology for Food Safety and Quality Control

Wholesalers exploit technology to help meet the most extensive reform of the U.S. food safety laws in more than 70 years.

As the quest for food safety reaches a summit with the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), wholesalers continue to strive to meet evolving legal and customer requirements.

“In the past several years, food safety has become an important requirement in the produce industry,” says Sam Hak, owner, and president of Arc-En-Ciel Produce in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. “Major retailers are making demands that all vendors must have specific programs in place to continue to supply them. This has forced all suppliers to develop food safety programs suitable to customer needs.”

The decades-long parallel development of food safety requirements and innovative technology has yielded new tools for wholesalers in pursuit of food safety.

“We have seen more tech changes in recent years geared toward food safety and quality control,” says Stefanie Katzman, executive manager at S. Katzman Produce in Bronx, NY. “We use software to manage food safety certifications and audits from our farmers. We are able to react and spread the word faster in recall situations. And, we can also send out food safety information to our customers in a more timely and easy manner.”

At John Vena in Philadelphia, the company’s food safety and quality assurance manager utilizes custom software to enhance its food safety program. “This also supports our step up to SQF Level II certification,” says Emily Kohlhas, director of marketing. “The software enables our sales team to do some robust reporting, which keeps us one step ahead of our clients’ needs.”

While some food safety standards are driven by laws such as FSMA, Dr. Jennifer McEntire, vice president of food safety and technology for United Fresh Produce Association in Washington, D.C., asserts customer requirements will always exceed regulatory requirements. “FDA regulations related to FSMA will never require a specific technology or tool be used, although some vendors seem to imply that. Realistically, for some wholesalers, the FSMA recordkeeping requirements are made much simpler by investing in new technologies.”

McEntire says tool choice is more likely the intersection of customer and legal requirements combined with the abilities offered by technology. “For example, a wholesaler knows refrigeration is an important control that needs to be monitored and knows the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will review these records,” she says. “So it may be easier to invest in a system that automatically logs temperature and alarms when a limit is exceeded, rather than relying on someone to manually check temperature at a set frequency. Buyers may come to expect data in real time, with rapid access to all kinds of information that can’t be obtained by paper-based systems.”

Recognizing the need for some type of uniformity, Katzman suggests standardization such as GTIN (a globally unique 14-digit number used to identify trade items, products or services) will greatly facilitate food safety. “While there are hundreds of examples of new equipment and software, the biggest help will be getting all suppliers and customers onto one traceability platform,” she says. “Once GTIN labeling becomes a requirement for all, it will streamline everyone’s operations.”

Intricately related to the food safety issue is quality control, and wholesalers combine new technologies to satisfy both needs. For quality control, S. Katzman uses a software and tablet to make full inspections and take pictures in the warehouse. “This information automatically uploads directly into our operating system for our buyers and salesmen to see,” says Katzman. “We also use analytics programs to help us dive deeper into figures.”

Matt Roy, director for category operations, produce at US Foods in Rosemont, IL, reports more players are getting into the inspection software space for quality assurance. “This allows for more information in the hands of our inspectors, real-time information on issues to buyers, faster and more accurate communication on issues to suppliers and more consistency with the inspection process,” he says.

Future plans on the immediate roadmap for G. Cefalu & Bro./Capital Seaboard in Jessup, MD, include food safety and QC apps fully integrated with its ERP system. “This app allows us to record and log electronically each daily task of our food safety team,” says Ken Lerch, IT director. “The QC app will allow us to photograph and record the quality of product in real time as it is received. We are excited about completing these initiatives year-end 2017.”