Passion for food quality inspires founder of agtech company
Passion for food quality inspires founder of agtech company
By Jennifer Kirby
It’s our most basic need and it’s getting more high-tech all the time. Food products can now be tracked with astounding precision as they make their way across the country and around the globe.
Growing up on a bison and grain farm in Saskatchewan, Erik Westblom – co-founder and CEO of Calgary-based Provision Analytics – learned to appreciate quality in food products. That passion motivates him to this day.
The focus for Provision Analytics is on grain, produce and dairy, while other industry colleagues focus more on traditional protein such as meat products.
“This will allow us to provide immediate solutions to the plant-protein industry,” says Westblom.
When we think of food safety, most of us think of the recent E. coli contamination that led to sweeping recalls that crippled the romaine lettuce industry for months last year. It was a stark reminder for consumers that produce can cause food-borne illness in the form of E. coli in addition to salmonella and listeria.
Westblom and Provision Analytics co-founders Chris Elias, Michael Gibbons and Phil Roberts have a unique mix of experience in farming, business and IT. Together they developed OneTrace. This food safety and traceability software makes product recalls quicker and more efficient because of the ability to track food sources right down to the exact batch, equipment used, time and date, raw materials, and even the exact employee involved with production.
Some systems can track food and tell you where it came from, but they don’t tell you anything about it, explains Westblom.
“In the case of produce growers, we track everything in processing facilities from the field to how it’s washed, how it’s handled and packed. For ice cream, we take a look at the raw materials that are coming in, the temperatures, how they’re being handled, packed and labelled, and where the product is being shipped to.”
Food safety compliance legislation can require hundreds of data fields for a single batch, leading to mounds of paperwork. Provision Analytics completely eliminates paper, turning everything digital while matching the workflow of the facility and providing the reporting. With this process, OneTrace finds efficiencies within facilities.
The company got its start in 2018 when it was chosen as one of 10 companies from a pool of 386 applicants to take part in FoodTrack by Maersk, an accelerator program in Copenhagen, Denmark, focused on innovative approaches to reducing food loss in the value chain.
Developing a digital solution in an industry where the vast majority still use paper documents and spreadsheets gives Provision Analytics an edge because of its ability to detect trends at individual facilities. In the coming years, Westblom says the goal is to use data gathered by OneTrace to spot trends more broadly to the point of predicting food recalls and having the power to take action quickly.
Westblom says a food recall in North American could cost a business $10 million US, which could drive many companies into bankruptcy. Recalls can even happen because of errors in packaging or labelling when there’s nothing actually wrong with the food itself.
Consider the loss of food before it even gets to market. A report by Value Chain Management Inc. in collaboration with Second Harvest Food Rescue indicates that 32 per cent of avoidable food waste occurs within the value chain – food that is lost due to factors such as poor logistics, import laws and improperly completed documents, even the failure of refrigeration units. All of this makes the food value chain one of the most fragmented and complex systems in the world.
OneTrace tracks food before it even gets to retail and to consumers. It works with food manufacturers, distributors and warehousing companies.
“Our technology has been designed for scalability within the most fragmented supply chain. The key piece is that we are focusing on partnership strategies to provide analytics solutions and data insight for the industry at aggregate,” says Westblom.
Food security is always top of mind for consumers and governments. Both Canada and the United States recently strengthened food safety requirements. In January 2019, the Canada Food Inspection Agency introduced a set of new regulations to enable faster removal of unsafe food, as in the case of food recalls. One objective is to benefit Canadian producers by protecting international markets for Canadian food products.
Then in April, the Food and Drug Administration in the US announced a “new era of smarter food safety” that calls for emerging technologies to “create a more digital, traceable and safer system.”
As well, the World Resources Institute just released Creating a Sustainable Food Future, in partnership with the World Bank, United Nations Environment (UNEP) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).
The report concludes there is a 56 per cent “food gap” between what was produced in 2010 and what will be needed in 2050. It also points out a “land gap” of 593 million hectares, which means if agricultural expansion were to continue on current trends to meet the higher demand in 2050, additional farmland equivalent to twice the size of India must be created. That projection provides a vivid representation of what an unsustainable food future looks like.
Systems like OneTrace are helping to take the industry in the right direction. It tracks a recall with complete precision, significantly reducing unnecessary waste within the food value chain, and creates efficiencies for companies in the areas of manufacturing, distributing and warehousing.
“As the industry increases standards around food safety throughout the value chain, these requirements will gradually make their way back to the farm over the next 10 years,” says Westblom.
Jennifer Kirby is a freelance writer based in Calgary
Posted Aug. 22, 2019 on ppaa.ca