Geospatial Intelligence: Part Five – Traceability and Provenance Assurance


Traceability has become increasingly important in supply chains, whether it’s pharmaceuticals, food, lumber, electronic parts, conflict minerals, and other commodities. The goals of traceability are diverse, such as anti-counterfeiting, rapid response/recall when tainted goods are discovered, brand protection, fair trade, environmental protection, and prevention of diversion/grey market sales.


This article is an excerpt from the report Geospatial Intelligence: Powering the Next Wave of Supply Chain Performance.
A copy of the full report can be downloaded here.

Part Four of this series covered the use of geospatial intelligence to track and manage mobile assets, such as vehicles, shipments, and various types of equipment. Here in Part Five, we look at the role of geospatial intelligence in providing traceability and provenance assurance capabilities.

Traceability and Provenance Assurance

Upstream traceability (aka backward traceability) is the ability to trace the various components and materials that an item is comprised of back to their original source, often through multiple tiers of production and/or blending of batches. Downstream traceability (aka forward traceability) is the ability to start at the source of any given batch or lot of materials or components and find out which end-products they ended up in, where they were distributed, and ultimately who bought those products. The traceability system should provide both upstream (backward) and downstream (forward) capabilities. Examples of applications of traceability include:

  • Processed Food and Pharmaceuticals — Production facilities up and down the food and pharma supply chain need to keep track of where every batch or lot of materials they received came from, which batch or lot or item those materials ended up in, and who those were sent to. This is called one-up/one-back traceability. If everyone in the chain does this properly, when a problem occurs, such as a batch of food that is contaminated, the problem can be traced back to the source of the problem, even if it is several tiers back in the production chain. Once the source is identified, such as an improperly sanitized machine that created several contaminated batches of some ingredient, forward tracing can be done to see where all those bad batches went. This enables more precise recalls. In practice, however, where most of the industry uses paper-based systems, this process is very slow and fraught with error. A better approach is a cloud-based system that keeps track of multiple tiers. There are a number of purpose-built systems that do this, but it is also possible to use a GIS platform to collect this data across multiple tiers. GIS systems can add location-intelligence, visualization, and analytics capabilities to traceability systems.
  • Aircraft Manufacturing and Maintenance – Airlines require ‘back-to-birth’ traceability of life-limited parts (LLP). LLPs are parts that are likely to need replacement during the life of the aircraft. When a master assembly (such as an engine or landing gear) undergoes a shop visit, to save time and costs, airlines frequently install used LLPs with sufficient remaining life to meet operational requirements. Thus, any given LLP requires a paper trail of all the places and hours of service it has been used, going all the way back to the original release certificate1 when it was manufactured.
  • Provenance Tracking and anti-counterfeiting — Provenance tracking is a type of traceability, where the primary concern is proof of origin, such as showing that a fine wine or artisan cheese was actually made in a specific region or farm or winery (and harvested in a specific year in the case of wine), or that a handmade product was produced by a particular artisan, or that a particular painting or sculpture or manuscript is actually an original made by the artist or author claimed to be its creator and is not a forgery. This later type of provenance (works of art and original manuscripts) often relies on evidence of an unbroken chain-of-custody or possession, as well as characteristics of the object (such as the type and age of the paper, the type and age of the inks and paint, x-ray images, etc.). Provenance for manufactured items, such as fine wine, may instead rely on difficult-to-forge artifacts, such as special seals or labels, 3D holograms, color-shifting inks, nanopatterning, invisible inks, and taggants, possibly combined with serialization and RFID. Provenance tracking is a key tool for anti-counterfeiting.
  • Fresh Produce, Meat, Fish, and Poultry — Fresh fruit and vegetable brand owners may trace the produce they buy back to the specific field it was grown in. Or a meat or poultry brand owner might trace cattle back to the specific breeder/stocker/feedlot they were bred and raised in or trace chickens back to the hatchery/incubator/production house that produced them. The same can be done with farmed fish and seafood. With this traceability in place, the brand owner can analyze the impact of different practices across the supply chain, and identify which practices improved yield, quality, and shelf life. Then they can propagate those best practices throughout their supply chain. Traceability can also help them do more precise, rapid, high-confidence recalls — both identifying the source of contamination with speed and precision, figuring out which lots were contaminated, and rapidly identifying where all affected product went for recall.

Ensuring Produce Freshness with Traceability and Cold Chain

Fresh berries are the largest category of produce sold worldwide. They are also one of the most fragile, perishable, and temperature sensitive. Hence, mastery at handling these delicate fruits, and keeping them within the optimal temperature range, are critical to reducing waste and ensuring high-quality product.

While famous for their berry breeding capabilities, a large grower and seller of berries also has honed their competencies in operations, cold chain, and berry handling. Because of the berries’ short shelf life and temperature sensitivity, the berry company’s strategy is to get the berries cooled to 33°F as soon as possible after picking them, keep them at that temperature throughout their journey, and get them from farm to retailer as quickly as possible. This is easy to articulate but hard to do. They use a variety of methods and technologies to accomplish this, such as mobile cooling trailers deployed right at the growing locations. They worked with the largest manufacturers of cooling units for refrigerator trailers and trucks to develop custom settings for their units to ensure proper temperature. Pallets are wrapped in an airtight bag where the atmosphere inside has most of the O2 replaced by CO2. This reduces oxidation, slowing down berry decay and adding several days of shelf life.

The company was one of the first to embrace the now ubiquitous clamshell containers to protect the sensitive fruit on its long journey. As with all aspects of their supply chain, they are continually looking for improvements to the packaging, such as recently co-developed new clamshell designs with optimized airflow to increase cooling speed and effectiveness.

The company has developed a traceability system that continuously tracks each pallet from the field all the way through to the final delivery at the retailer. Workers in the field scan pallets, so the company knows exactly where each pallet came from and which clamshells went into it. Each pallet has a temperature sensor in it and all trucks carrying their berries are outfitted with temperature sensors and real-time GPS tracking devices. At their headquarters, they have large wall-mounted live maps tracking the location and condition of every truck carrying those clamshells in North America. Typically, they have 250 or so trucks on the road at any given time. The icon for each truck will be green, yellow, or red, based on a number of factors that might need attention. If the truck is running late, it will turn yellow. If the temperature inside any of those trucks goes outside the acceptable range, the color changes, and an alert is generated. If needed, the driver may be instructed to go to the nearest service center to have the temperature adjusted or have other issues related to cooling fixed. Alarms also go off if the truck stops too long or security is breached, since each truckload of strawberries is worth about $50,000 and a truckload of blueberries is about $100,000.

This system helps operations run smoothly. But this berry company takes traceability a step further. The same platform is used to record over half a million flavor ratings from customers each year, as well as freshness audits at retail stores. Each clamshell has a unique traceability code that consumers can use to rate the berries in an online survey. This helps the berry company understand consumer tastes. Further, because they are able to trace each clamshell back to the field it was grown in and the date of harvest, and they have complete historical temperature visibility from harvest to retail shelf, they can zero in on what factors are making some berries better and others worse than average. This can be used for a variety of purposes such as identifying and fixing systemic problems in the cold chain (such as particular routes, drivers, facilities, or equipment that seems to be having or causing issues) and to propagate best practices gleaned from the farmers that are getting superior results. In the rare case that a recall is required, the same system can be used to locate all tainted berries and ensure they are removed from the supply chain and/or alert consumers who may have purchased them.

Part Six of this series focuses on the use of geospatial intelligence in supply chain safety and security.


1 LLPs manufactured as spare parts have their own release certificate. Parts installed new onto a new master assembly will be listed as a component on the master assembly’s release certificate (EASA Form One, FAA 8130 or equivalent). — Return to article text above

To view other articles from this issue of the brief, click here.

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