Food safety has been high on the global agenda for some time, with the UN estimating in 2019 that a staggering 600 million people fall ill after eating contaminated food each year, leading to around 420,000 deaths.

Research published earlier this year by the Food Standards Agency revealed that around 2.4 million cases of foodborne illness occur every year in the UK alone.

“As a result, regulators around the world have been introducing increasingly stringent legislation to ensure that manufacturers meet ever-higher food safety standards,” Colin Crow, managing director of digital transformation specialist, Sigma Dynamics, says. “Additionally, a series of high-profile food safety incidents, such as the 2013 horse meat scandal, have generated greater consumer awareness of the issue, while more recently, the looming spectre of Brexit has seen serious concerns raised in the national media around whether current food standards will be upheld after we leave the EU.

“The pandemic has also served to heighten awareness of food safety, with a September 2020 survey by the Mars Global Food Safety Centre finding that 73 per cent of people believe the novel coronavirus will impact the viability of the global supply chain, and are now as concerned about food safety and security as climate change, pollution and poverty.”

Consequently, the business cost of a food safety incident would be more catastrophic now than ever before, with harm to consumers, loss of trust, potentially irreparable damage to the brand’s reputation and financial implications linked to product recalls and redesigns all part of the inevitable fallout. “By embracing smart technology, and becoming truly connected enterprises, gives businesses greater oversight of the whole production process, ensures greater traceability, and improves performance monitoring,” Crow adds. “This means that food and drink manufacturers can, in some cases, identify and prevent food safety issues before they occur and deal with them much more effectively in others, enabling them to meet the increasing demands of the modern world. The opportunities offered by the advent of Industry 4.0 are therefore huge.

“However, knowing which technologies to implement can be daunting. Coupled with concerns about the costs associated with new tech, this has prevented many manufacturers from digitalising their operations until now.

“Fortunately, the right technologies can simultaneously offer improved regulatory compliance and a host of other benefits – such as greater consistency, increased productivity and better product quality – making digital transformation undoubtedly the right choice from a business perspective.”

At the heart of Industry 4.0 is connected equipment. When different pieces of equipment across the supply chain are capable of communicating with each other and synchronising themselves, this generates a wealth of data and knowledge that can be used to make intelligent decisions.

“This real-time end-to-end view of the production process plays a key role in helping to solve production issues, pinpointing problems at the earliest possible stage,” Crow concludes. “It also means that companies can keep far better track of their inventories and orders, reducing waste, shortening logistics time frames and ensuring that products are as fresh as possible. All of which serves to keep the risk to the consumer at an absolute minimum.”

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