August 2011 | Commentary | In Perspective

Responding to the Past

Tags: Trucking, Legislation, Public Policy, and Regulations, Food Logistics

We may need to remove all the mirrors in Washington, D.C.—not to shrink the egos of lawmakers and regulators, but to keep them from looking back and solving the problems of the past.

While researching the Food Safety Modernization Act and its effect on logistics for my article, Temp-Controlled Food Transport: Safe Travels, I found it striking—and alarming—that so many details have yet to be decided. This is clearly a moment our industry cannot afford to overlook, or we will all suffer from the results.

Remember when the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism (C-TPAT) was developed? While C-TPAT's lack of specificity caused some discomfort, it was also a relief that legislators with no direct experience in the operations they were attempting to regulate would not generate a multitude of well-meaning, but over-reaching, rules. A distribution center does not require the same level of security as a nuclear power plant.

In the case of C-TPAT, the government lived up to the act's name and formed a true partnership with the private sector. Many in the private sector would have preferred more guidance from the regulators, but we got the job done and continue to evolve systems to keep pace with supply chain threats and developments.

When it comes to the safe transportation and interim storage of food, shippers have developed some high-level best practices. Given the potential risk to customers, brand reputations, and balance sheets, monitoring food safety is just good business. It is a minority of bad actors who need close government intervention.

A few years ago, I talked to a slaugterhouse operator on Prince Edward Island, Canada, about its track-and-trace system. Run by a consortium of cattle farmers, the business had some incentive for collecting and sharing data with growers. Growers are paid on yield, so tracking accurate yield through the process was important. In addition, growers could gain insight on which feedstock produced the best final yield.

Cattle typically arrive with bar-coded ear tags, but once they enter the process, that identifier is lost. Using an innovative Psion radio-frequency identification (RFID) tag embedded in the in-plant handling system, the processor gained full visibility.

A discussion with the Psion engineer reveals a much larger story. The United States had an outbreak of Mad Cow disease, and Japan banned beef originating from certain U.S. regions. The Canadian butcher's visibility—back to what food each cow had consumed—opened that export market. Productivity may have been the driver, but food safety was a parallel concern. They met at the bottom line.

The point isn't this single solution, but a plethora of solutions being employed and developed throughout the food chain. Better efficiency, higher productivity, and food safety go hand in hand, and those in the industry know it.

That argument goes well beyond the food industry. Supply chain professionals are moving forward in addressing safety and security concerns, as well as solving productivity problems and improving bottom-line performance every day.

When lawmakers set a deadline and direct regulators to develop rules, our industry must mobilize and demonstrate its capabilities. If we don't, regulators may try to solve problems the industry has already addressed. Let's take the mirror out of government's hands and replace it with a magnifying glass focused on positive results.