What is the food supply chain and how to shorten it?

You may find supply chains in all branches of production. The chain represents symbolically all processes that take place between the production of an item and its consumption. A characteristic feature of the food supply chain is its length: the fewer links there are, the better.

Not only ancient Romans but probably also other great empires in history realised the importance of the supply chain. Waging wars or managing provinces required the building of supply chains. However, the modern understanding of the supply chain has been well known since the second half of the 20th century.

What is the supply chain?

The supply chain starts at the point where raw materials (or component parts) to produce a specific good (tangible or intangible) are supplied. It ends in the place where the produced good is consumed and the waste generated here is disposed of. Every link in the chain is to meet the demand of the next link.

While the flow of consumer goods is one-way, information flows in two directions: from the consumer to the producer (order, payment) and in the opposite direction (e.g. confirmation of order acceptance, information on terms and time of delivery, confirmation of payment receipt, current information on delivery status). The participants in the supply chain both meet the demand for certain goods (when they are their producers) and generate demand (when they are consumers of raw materials and components needed for production).

The specificity of the food supply chain

The food supply chain begins in the field, plantation, or forest. It is here that various types of food products harvested begin their journey to the customer or are used to feed animals raised for meat, milk and other production. The end of the food flow is in your kitchen. However, the retail store (and even more specifically your refrigerator) can be considered the last link in the supply chain.

All participants in the food supply chain fall into three main groups: suppliers, processors and consumers. At the beginning of the chain, you will find food producers and suppliers, i.e. farmers and companies purchasing agricultural products. Likewise, at the end of the chain – customers of processors (food wholesalers), wholesalers (retail) and end customers. Food processors very often rely on pre-processed raw materials or components which are produced by other specialised plants (e.g. producers of gelatine, starch, sugar, etc.). Of course, there can be many more links in the chain.

Food, unlike steel or oil, cannot be produced in surplus. This is especially true for unprocessed food intended for direct consumption. However, even processed foods need to be consumed in a relatively short time. Hence, there is constant pressure to shorten the supply chain as much as possible. The delivery time between the purchase of food products and their appearance on your table must be very short. Otherwise, the food does not reach its end consumer in an edible condition and the entire supply chain fails.

Logistics, or the bloodstream of the food supply chain

Logistics is the bloodstream of supply chains for all consumer goods. In the case of the food supply chain, however, the metaphor takes on an almost literal meaning: if logistics fails, food deteriorates and you end up just throwing it away. The consequences of errors in Supply Chain Management (SCM) are not only food waste and financial losses. In extreme cases, improperly transported food becomes a threat to its consumers. In order to exclude such a risk, the following parameters of the food supply chain (within logistics) should be constantly monitored and optimised:

  • delivery time – in the case of food transport is a key parameter that can be improved not only by changing the means of transport (e.g. from sea to air), but also by improving packing procedures: the use of packing algorithms can save tens or hundreds of hours even in relatively short food supply chains (e.g. operating in the territory of one country),
  • temperature – isothermal, refrigerated and ice-cold vehicles and (required by regulations in many countries) temperature monitoring during transport are commonly used,
  • humidity – is the second key factor, after temperature, in the transport of unprocessed food: it is as important for keeping food fresh as the temperature,
  • protection against contamination – the basic issue in the transport of any type of food, even in the case of processed food,
  • protection against pests – insects and rodents not only destroy food and are a potential source of contamination, but also can carry microorganisms that are dangerous to the life and health of consumers,
  • protection against unauthorised access – contact with food products by unauthorised persons (untrained, without the qualifications necessary for contact with food) may pose serious bacteriological threats.

The ideal food supply chain is the one that starts in your vegetable garden and ends with a salad on your table in quarter of an hour. The idea of ​​producing food for one’s own needs and creating a network of small local producers and suppliers, i.e. shortening supply chains, is experiencing a renaissance. However, still most of the food served on your table comes from industrial food production. Its quality and impact on your health, as well as the amount of waste, depend to a large extent on how efficient the management of the long supply chain is, especially how well logistics are organised.