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Inside The Dubious-Sounding “Internet Of Food”

Big food companies believe sensors can make our food safer, cheaper, and easier to ship. But do people want them?

Inside The Dubious-Sounding “Internet Of Food”
[Image: Flickr user Arya Ziai]

Nicola Villa, one of Cisco’s top consultants on big data and analytics, believes the “Internet of food” will soon be as real as the Internet of things.

The IT giant, which is heavily involved in the world of connected devices, forecasts a future where sensors and analytic systems will guarantee food stays safe, fresh, and affordable in the supply chain. Villa is helping representatives from British supermarket giant Tesco and others to work on proof-of-concept projects for sensors in the food supply chain at Thnk, an Amsterdam-based incubator/thinktank. At a presentation day in September, Tesco and Cisco will integrate feasible ideas from the class into their business plans.

Some of the test concepts from the sensors-and-food brainstorming project make perfect sense. Ayana Johnson, a marine biologist, is working on infrastructure to allow end consumers to track the sourcing of their food down to the individual farm it was grown or raised on. Other participants envision a start-to-finish supply chain tracking system similar to the one FedEx uses to ship packages, or technology to prevent food counterfeiting such as mislabeled seafood.

“We wanted to see if we could hack an entire value chain, starting with food, to see how people, processes, data, and things come together to transform whole markets,” Villa told Co.Labs. “We selected food as one major issue because we believe there is a safety crisis in food supply. Tesco, through their Tesco Labs division, is also cooperating in the challenge. They bring expertise from a retail management perspective, customer insights, and propositions.”

The idea of placing sensors in every pallet and analytics dashboards in every warehouse isn’t a new one for agriculture, hospitality, or retail. According to a report published earlier this year by the Kaufman Foundation, one of the biggest changes for the world of agriculture is the rise of “integrated farming systems” that combine sensors, smart machinery, genetics, and physical labor to track plants and animals in real time. And Tesco purchased analytics firm Dunnhumby last year, which is one of the world’s best known consumer data analysis firms.

Although the process of building sensors and analytic backends into the world’s food supply chain will take a long time, it’s already underway–and is largely an outgrowth of the point-of-sale, inventory management, and record-keeping methods huge corporations have used for years. Huge chains and corporations are finding it increasingly affordable to use sensors and RIFD technology at the pallet and even SKU level. Agricultural users are finding novel uses for data-driven tech like monitoring vineyards using analytics dashboards and even–in Michigan–mandatory ear tags for cattle that track each cow’s location to prevent disease infestation.

For companies like Cisco, Tesco, and PepsiCo, the industrial Internet is a massive goldmine–and a way of sharply enhancing customer and vendor satisfaction. Being able to cut waste out of the supply chain and preventing subpar products from hitting store shelves benefits all sides. Cisco and other large vendors like Microsoft and General Electric will benefit nicely from the change, but there are also significant benefits to customers. In the meantime, though, expect to see more and more food producers adopting sensors and connected devices of all sorts.


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