Steve Millward looks at some of the ways the latest technology is being used to fight crime in the food chain

However, as the horse meat scandal of 2013 showed, there is a possibility that even today we aren’t eating what we think we’re eating. But the events of five years ago directly drove the introduction of a range of tests based around DNA fingerprinting to reduce the likelihood of such horse play happening again.

It’s not just meat where there can be issues: fine wines and spirits companies around the world are waging a continuous war against fakes, while the virgin olive oil being sold in some shops may be rather less pure than the label suggests, some honeys can leave a bitter taste in the shopper’s mouth and many truffle-flavoured products would make a pig turn up its nose in disgust.

All of these issues explain why reputable food producers and retailers have begun to put so much emphasis on proof of provenance, including using packaging that deploys the latest digital technology to talk to consumers and reassure them that what they’re buying and using is the real thing.

Growing problem
So, we now have olive oil, wine and whisky bottles that you can scan with your smartphone to find out everything you ever wanted to know about the farmer, wine grower and head distiller plus recipes for using your purchase – and also to check if someone has sneakily opened your private bottle while you weren’t around, had a dram and replaced the amber nectar with water!

Plus, there are projects underway which use advanced auditing tools, data analysis and Artificial Intelligence to churn through data on product availability and pricing to flag up instances where there’s too much of something that should be in limited supply available to buy at too low a price. Just like everything in life, if you’re offered something at a price you think is too good to be true, it probably isn’t true.But that’s all to do with what happens on shelf: a bit like the proverbial iceberg, there’s a whole lot more going on under the surface, in the supply and logistics chain.

Take our business, for example. Bakers Basco operates a pool of four million specially designed bread baskets which are used to convey loaves to retailers. The idea is that the baskets get returned to the bakers, who use them again and again – for up to ten years.

In the current climate, with very real and valid concerns about the volume of non-returnable and non-reusable plastics in the supply chain, there is an increasing focus on Returnable Transit Packaging (RTP) – as well as on recycling and on schemes like reusable bottles for drinks (which, of course, used to be the way we got everything from milk to lemonade to beer – you paid a deposit on the bottle which you got back when you returned the empties).

Unfortunately, like many RTP products (like pallets – most of them are supposed to get returned and reused), our baskets and dollies are just too well-designed, sturdy and all-round useful – so they get ‘borrowed’. Or just plain nicked…

Tracking down missing returnable packaging may not sound the sexiest of occupations, but diversion and theft of reusable delivery equipment such as pallets, food containers, bottles, drums and crates is a growing problem.

Technology helps
At the end of the day, if packaging which is meant to be reused goes missing, then it means extra costs for the food producer which they have to pass on to the retailers who will then pass them on to the shoppers. Plus, of course, there are additional costs in terms of harm to the environment – people who misuse returnable packaging tend to dump surplus items at the side of the road or in canals, rather than disposing of them responsibly.

In addition to employing a team dedicated to tracking down and reclaiming our baskets and the dollies, we, too, have turned to the latest technology to reduce loss.

A few years back, we launched a range of baskets made with glitter which meant that if illegally granulated (chipped) it was of less value to the illegal recycler and it also made it possible to determine that it was our baskets that had been destroyed – even after granulation. More recently, though, we have embraced the Internet of Things, by putting GPS trackers in some of our equipment.

These have proved extremely useful in a number of court cases where our legal team were able to hand the judge maps showing the movement of our baskets around the defendants’ sites and further afield. This clearly demonstrated that they hadn’t simply accidentally got hold of some of our products – they were actively using them to transport something they weren’t designed to transport.

More recently, when large numbers of our baskets started going missing from customers in Birmingham, we used our trackers to follow them – and then, in partnership with the police, raided a plastic recycling firm where we recovered thousands of pounds’ worth of Bakers Basco equipment.

Tracking the criminals
As technology has improved, trackers have become smaller and more reliable. Early in May we had another huge result in Birmingham when a GPS tracker in a bread basket led us to another recycling operation where our equipment, along with that of some well-known high street supermarkets, was actively being destroyed in a plastics granulating machine and turned back into raw material for sale. Our actions have subsequently put an end to this illegal operation. Our investigation, and those of other agencies, are ongoing.

Everyone in the food chain, from the food producers, the big brands, the retailers and all the different supply and logistics firms that help keep our daily bread moving, needs to be keeping up with the latest trends in technology and looking at how they can be used to stamp out crime.

Steve Millward is General Manager at bakery equipment company Bakers Basco, which was set up by five of the UK’s leading plant bakers in 2006 to buy, manage and police the use of a standard basket for the delivery of bread to retailers and wholesalers.