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10 March, 2017 Feature Articles

How Big Data could revolutionize the food industry

How Big Data could revolutionize the food industry

Big data has become a potent weapon in the management toolkit of businesses across the globe. But to what extent is the food and beverage sector taking advantage of the opportunities?

Kathleen Wybourn, Director Food & Beverages, DNV GL US & Canada, is a recognized leader in global food safety.  Kathleen held a variety of roles in food manufacturing before moving into food safety solutions and auditing.
Big data is simply an amount of data too big to be processed by conventional software systems and databases. The practice of big data is about capturing volumes of internal and external data from all parts of the supply chain and putting it to work on your behalf.

Given that we’re now generating 2.5 quintillion bytes of data a day (everything from social media posts to the data gathered by sensors in the rapidly expanding Internet of Things) it’s no wonder that the desire to derive value from these vast oceans of information has emerged.

The end game should be better insights and improved decision making which increases efficiency, productivity and profits. But how is that playing out in the food and beverage sector so far; what are the potential benefits and pitfalls; and is the sector ready to seize the advantage?

Big Data Is with Us Now

The first thing to say is that big data is already very much with us – DNV GL conducted a viewpoint survey[1] and found that out of 1,200 interviewees globally, half had already undertaken at least one action related to big data.
Moreover, focusing on the food and beverage sector only, the survey shows that food and beverage organizations have a higher than average propensity to embrace big data, and see it as an opportunity and not a threat. More than 25 per cent of food and beverage respondents indicate that a big data application has already boosted their productivity and value creation, and the same number already have a clear big-data strategy.
Almost half of them think that big data will impact their company in the next 2-3 years, although for many, exactly how still remains to be seen. Nevertheless there seems to be optimism about the potential of big data, and food and beverage companies also foresee fewer barriers to taking advantage of big data than other industries.

Uses and Applications in Food

So how can food and beverage organizations use big data and what are its applications? In the survey, actions seems to focus on efficiency and financial savings, brand reputation and supply chain management. This could indicate that the companies surveyed felt that big data could help them address tight margins while managing their brand reputation and an ever growing complex risk picture.

Big data can be used for things like internal benchmarking – for example between plants. Perhaps even more valuable is the benchmarking done against other companies or businesses that are similar. Big data also gives you the opportunity to identify continuous improvement areas, threats and opportunities.

Of course big data is about insight – giving visibility to help organizations become more efficient and strip out waste. It can provide help with product development, supply chain management and risk management.

Maybe even more importantly, it’s about foresight. For example, crunching market data to indicate trends which give organizations a first-mover advantage when they anticipate shifts in the market ahead of the competition.

Another application of big data is data sharing. The food and beverage industry is recognized for being a collaborative industry, especially on topics such as food safety. The Global Food Safety Initiative demonstrated what can be done, and everybody wins. Greater transparency along the supply chain will help build supply chain and customer confidence while improvements in traceability and better sourcing decisions will decrease food safety risks to consumers. It will be interesting to see, given the progressive nature of food and beverage companies, if big data can take collaborations into related or new areas which, for instance, tackle food fraud.

Indeed, opportunities for big data in the sector are probably infinite. IBM, for example, has already used big data to create novel recipes.[2] In an effort to show how computers can be creative, Big Blue programmed a supercomputer to analyse vast quantities of data on everything from existing recipes and the molecular and chemical compounds of ingredients, to known human flavour preferences. Ideas such as an apple and pork kebab cooked with mushrooms, strawberries and curry powder; or a dessert made from bacon, porcini mushrooms, walnut meal and dried figs are the result. On a serious note, it does illustrate that big data even has the potential to revolutionize how food manufacturers create recipes.
Realizing the Opportunity

To get the most from big data, food and beverage companies first need to put a big data strategy in place. This might involve an education piece across the organization, alerting everyone to a new frontier and gaining genuine engagement. 

Organizations should also know from the off what they want to get out of big data, focussing on what’s important to them. Taking the organization’s overarching mission and vision as a starting point might help determine what the big data priorities should be. 

Organizations need to be aware of the pitfalls and challenges of big data. They need to take account of issues around data privacy and confidentiality, and legislation around data protection. They need to think about data validation and who owns data; about motivations for sharing data; and about where and how to develop common platforms, and with whom.

Big data is unruly. Systems need to be robust. They need the capacity to deal not only with the volume of big data but the speed that it can come in at. Thought needs to be given to capture, curation, search and storage. And to how the organization can get real-time or near real-time value from the information.

Remember that big data is pointless if you can’t do anything with it. Organizations need to think about how to present the findings from big data – creating the dashboards, scorecards and reporting that make sense of big data and make it actionable. This should include reporting and alerts which pick up deviations from the norm as well as patterns and trends. These are often the points at which something can be done – after all, reacting to change and creating opportunity is the point of big data.

Finally, food organizations should adopt big data now or risk being left behind. We are entering a new era of digitization and complexity in which big data will become a strong asset. Early adopters in the food industry will have a competitive advantage over the organizations that drag their feet.

[1] Are you able to leverage big data to boost your productivity and value creation? Conducted by DNV GL - Business Assurance and GFK Eurisko on close to 1,200 professionals in different sectors in Europe, the Americas and Asia. For more see:
[2] See: Cognitive Cooking with Chef Watson: Recipes for Innovation from IBM & the Institute of Culinary Education
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