The frequency of food safety alerts has brought into sharp focus the need for more sophisticated traceability systems throughout the entirety of the food chain from farm to fork.

Supply chain technology expert Zetes, which is working with the convenience sector on digitally-connected supply chains to supply end-to-end visibility and traceability, said fresh foods, ready meals, packaging errors and machine failures were resulting in recalls.

Problems potentially stemmed back to the original food source at different stages along the production line but stores had a duty of care “irrespective of size”, to ensure its food was fit for sale.

Zetes general manager of supply chain Sébastien Sliski, which has worked with wholesaler Henderson Group, stressed the importance of awareness among retailers of everything going on in their supply chain in near-real time.

He said when it came to convenience, the various parts of the supply chain from the distributors to suppliers, wholesalers to buying groups often operated in isolation, which resulted in the fragmented flow of information and poor traceability.

And a digitally-connected supply chain ensured that relevant parties could see the right information at the right time.

“Crucially, if situations unfold that lead to a product recall, having greater transparency will result in a retailer and its suppliers being able to react much quicker, and any delays to discovering the cause of the contamination or issue, the number of products affected and the potential risk to public consumption or confusion is dramatically reduced.”

Sliski said the digital integration of suppliers, and even their subcontractors, with retailers was vital if retailers wanted to have more control over their supply chain.

“Consumer demand for socially responsible and ethical business operations means that businesses need to provide greater visibility and transparency into the origins of their products.”

He said more and more manufacturers were starting to look at “the internet of things” – sensors and devices that talk to the internet so they can then have real-time dashboards of activities taking place in their production line.

“Through the use of cloud technology, retailers can also connect their supply chain, analyse data and make the supply chain better at condition-monitoring products, such as for perishable goods, and can be alerted if there is a chance that food could have been subject to contaminatin,” he said.

Sensors onto machinery – say ovens – enabled temperatures to be checked, or they could be placed in lorries or on food packaging, making it possible to see exactly where a product had been and when, and the temperature it had been kept at throughout its journey.

“This data cannot only be reported back to the retailer to give them every opportunity to prevent any contaminated products hitting their shelves but also provides them with a full audit trail,” said Sliski.