January 28, 2019 By Jordan Teicher 5 min read

Americans love beef. In 2016, American beef consumption was the fourth highest in the world per capita, and four times higher than the world average. But for many Americans, how that beef gets to their plates is something of a mystery. For a long time, most people were fine with that. But trends are changing.

“I think consumers are more educated today. They want to feel comfortable that the restaurants they’re walking into did everything they possibly could to protect the product and to ensure it’s being served over the counter safely,” said Gregg Tarlton, the East Coast Regional Operations Director for Quality Custom Distribution, a subsidiary of the protein product provider Golden State Foods (GSF).

But tracking exactly what happens to beef from farm to fork in near real- time is not easy for any company. The beef supply chain, in particular, is highly segmented and only growing in complexity. Before a hamburger lands on a customer’s plate, at least half a dozen businesses— ranches, feedlots, packers, processors, distribution centers, and restaurants— have had a hand in its creation and transportation. Each business along that product lifecycle keeps its own meticulous records. Software systems designed to connect them, however, typically require a lot of manual inputs, are prone to errors, and encounter inherent delays. And those systems are not designed to track one of the most essential elements in the beef’s journey—the temperature at which it’s kept.

GSF and IBM believe they can address the issue with a combination of advanced technologies. This summer, they began piloting a solution that combines radio-frequency identification (RFID) to automatically track fresh beef’s movement, IoT devices to monitor its temperature, and blockchain technology to orchestrate the business rules between parties in the supply chain. Working together, the technologies render a level of transparency, safety, and trust the industry has never seen before.

Though this pilot program links just three parties—a protein plant, a distribution center, and several quick-service restaurants—one day, GSF believes the program could be used to link the entire beef lifecycle, from the ranch to the restaurant.

“This solution is a cornerstone to empower consumers with unsurpassed transparency regarding the origin of their food and all the handoffs that happen along the way,” said Guilda Javaheri, Golden State Foods’ Chief Technology Officer.

At its 165,000-square- foot LEED-certified protein plant in Opelika, Alabama, Golden State Foods produces more than 160 million pounds of meat products every year. On the plant floor, employees form 100 percent beef patties, load them into boxes, palletize them, and store them in massive refrigerators and freezers.

This is where Wayne Morgan, GSF’s corporate VP and president of the company’s protein products group, goes to work every day. A lifelong beef industry professional with a PhD in Animal Science, Dr. Morgan is aware of everything that happens inside of the plant. But in the beef industry’s current segmented state, he doesn’t have any visibility beyond the distribution center where he ships his products.

“We don’t have end-to- end visibility of the entire network,” he said.

This summer, during GSF’s pilot with IBM, Dr. Morgan helped demonstrate what next-generation visibility in the supply chain looks like. As part of the program, a new machine at the Opelika plant began applying RFID tags to a select number of boxes. A series of readers were installed to automatically register the location of the boxes as they moved through the facility to the loading dock and onto shipping trucks. IoT sensors, meanwhile, were placed in strategic manufacturing points to give instantaneous reports on ambient temperatures.

The Extra Mile: Golden State Foods Reimagines the Beef Supply Chain

As shipments of beef left Opelika and proceeded to GSF’s distribution center and ultimately to restaurants in North Carolina, Dr. Morgan— as well as his colleagues all along the supply chain— could open a dashboard and see where the shipments had gone, the temperature at which they’d been maintained, and their shelf life. And due to blockchain’s immutable nature, no one could alter the numbers.

In Dr. Morgan’s view, this level of transparency in near real-time is the type of change that could revolutionize the industry in a way not seen since the adoption of boxed beef in the 1970s.

“We’ve been treating beef the same way for many years,” he said. “This is an opportunity for the industry to make a big step forward and go beyond the traditional way of doing things.”

The distribution center in Garner, North Carolina where Golden State Foods ships its beef operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Every year, 15.5 million cases of products you might find at a restaurant— everything from napkins to ketchup to beef—move through the facility to more than 550 quick-service restaurants in three states.

Moving that much product around every day requires a huge amount of precise coordination. Phil Liuzzo, continuous improvement senior analyst at the facility, knows that well. He spends his days finding ways to make that orchestration run more smoothly so that restaurant operators are happy.

Even at today’s best distribution centers, Liuzzo acknowledges, issues inevitably arise. A shipment may, due to human error, not contain the number of cases a customer ordered. If that happens, restaurant owners wouldn’t know about the error until they’d received it. And by then, they might not have enough product to get by until the next planned delivery.

“Right now, they don’t really have a good idea of where a truck’s at, or what order is coming, or if we picked the right quantity,” he said.

This summer, during the blockchain pilot, that changed. Newly-installed RFID readers at the distribution center automatically registered the number of cases of beef leaving the facility and communicated that information across the supply chain through the blockchain to the restaurants receiving it.

“Now with the dashboard, they’re able to log on and see they have six cases en route, and they’ll be there when they need them. That level of planning really helps the operator,” Liuzzo said. “We’re really making sure that the customers are getting the product they need with the temperature integrity required.”

In the days after a delivery, all the parties in the supply chain can continue to monitor the beef, enabling efficiencies at every level. Restaurant operators can track their inventory—and its shelf life—allowing them to make sure they use a product at the optimal window in its shelf life. Consulting that same data, manufacturers and distribution centers could get a jump start on planning their schedules.

“Can you imagine how much waste could be prevented with that kind of information?” Javaheri said. “You’re going to be able to ultimately have the right product at the right time at the right place.”

In the sprawling beef industry, creating consensus is difficult—and expensive. But Tarlton believes that the cost of standing still for businesses, ultimately, is greater than the cost of change.

“It can protect the brand, protect their businesses, protect everything that they’ve worked so hard their entire life to make,” Tarlton said.

It will likely take a while before a blockchain can fully unite the beef supply chain. And it will probably take even longer before a customer at a restaurant can access all the information on that blockchain.

“But it’s a goal worth working toward,” Liuzzo said.

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