Providing leading supply chain management technology to the food and drink industry for two decades, iTradeNetwork, headquartered in California, USA, provides native traceability, order management, quality inspection and analytics to a network of more than 6,000 companies.
This includes 14 of the top 20 North American grocers, all 10 of North America’s top foodservice distributors and 8 of the top 10 global food manufacturers, with the company describing itself as “experts in managing the challenges of fresh produce.”
One of the main reasons it is exhibiting at this year’s London Produce Show and Conference, which runs from June 5 to June 7 at the Grosvenor House on Park Lane, is to gain more understanding of opportunities that exist between the UK and Europe, and to see how its expertise can translate into these markets.
Ahead of the show, we caught up with Rene Cardenas (left), head of marketing and strategic planning at iTradeNetwork, to talk about how Brexit, artificial intelligence (AI) and the international fresh produce business may evolve in the coming years.
Q: You’ve been in business for 20 years. How have things grown since your inception?
A: Twenty years ago, iTradeNetwork saw the opportunity to deploy technology in ways that helped buyers and suppliers connect to each other and more effectively manage the complexity of procuring and moving perishables. iTrade has grown from a network of a handful of customers to the industry’s largest perishables network, with more than 5,000 companies trading with each other. We’ve also evolved to incorporate traceability, quality inspection, master data and analytics offerings into a broader iTrade Platform.
Q: How do you help fresh produce brands and growers?
A: Our technology is currently deployed globally, but we don’t currently have any customers using it actively in the UK. One of the reasons we’re attending the London Produce Show is to better assess the opportunities that exists in the UK and Europe, and see how technologies that currently serve our customers can benefit the UK and European marketplaces.
Q: The fresh produce business is smarter than ever before because of the rise of technology and supply chain management systems such as your own. What do you see as the next big innovation in fresh produce? What will the future look like?
A: It’s easy to get wrapped up in the rise of technology as such, but the future really belongs to those organizations that can best identify the critical operational workflows or consumer trends upon which their revenue and margins hinge, and develop strategic plans of attack. For example, true end-to-end supply chain visibility in real-time may sound like the final frontier, but breaking it down into its constituent parts makes it much less lofty and more digestible. From there, organizations can decide how to best leverage data and emerging technologies to address perceived supply chain gaps without getting lost in the technology itself. That’s where iTrade comes in. We take the abstraction out of technology and make digital transformation real for the fresh produce supply chain.
Q: Getting the balance between relying too much on machines or not enough is a challenge for producers, isn’t it?
A: Too much of anything in life is rarely ever good. I wouldn’t say it’s a worry in the sense that the fresh produce industry is very much attuned to the law of diminishing returns. When you see AI, robotics, GPS, imaging tech and big data at work in the fields, it’s not a matter of faith. There are real challenges in harvesting and weed prevention, for example, that technology is arguably in a good position to help solve relatively quickly. Produce labor scarcity in both North America and the UK are also real issues. The industry won’t wait for a solution, so it experiments and finds what works, but it’s not an issue of faith as much as it is necessity.
Q: What would you say are the biggest challenges in the fresh produce business right now? And how are you helping fresh produce brands overcome them?
A: One of the biggest challenges right now is keeping consumer confidence high amidst a string of recent recalls and food safety events. The technology to attribute illness to a food-based pathogen has outpaced the technology we have available as an industry to precisely identify, isolate and remove affected products from the supply chain. To solve this problem, we launched the iTradeBlockchain earlier this year. Our goal is a system of record that instills confidence and sets new standards for food safety, traceability, reliability, and recall management.
What sets us apart from other blockchain initiatives out there is something really important — we capture traceability data at the source using our own native applications. Others rely on data-aggregation tools or third parties posting data to blockchains after an activity has occurred; we can write not only traceability data, but also procurement and fresh inspection data to blockchains in real-time. On the grower side, this gives them the ability to rely on a single technology partner for the supply chain visibility they need after their products leave their custody.
We’re also helping fresh produce brands address another kind of visibility challenge by opening our trading network to encourage discovery and autonomous relationship building. As consumer tastes change and more specialty produce brands emerge, it’s especially important for buyers and suppliers to find each other and start trading quickly. Fresh produce brands can leverage our trading platform to do that. We already have the industry’s largest trading network, and we need to help our customers on the network be as responsive to the marketplace as possible.
Q: Brexit is obviously a hot topic right now. Do you think the UK fresh produce business is well-equipped to cope? Or does there still need to be a lot of work done in order to ensure the industry isn’t negatively affected?
A: I think the UK fresh produce business is doing everything it can to mitigate any potential negative effects related to Brexit. About half of the UK’s fresh fruit and vegetable imports come from the EU, so there’s no easy way around it. When you go from a situation in which, for example, you have hundreds, if not more, truckloads of Dutch produce coming to the UK every day relatively seamlessly, each with dozens of products on a single pallet, and you’re potentially moving to another reality in which the EU mandates customs and phytosanitary checks for these same products bound for the UK, that adds complexity. It’s more than just the inconvenience of not being able to ship different fruits and vegetables on the same pallet. It’s more time, more cost, potentially more shrinkage as well. Nevertheless, I have no doubt that the UK fresh produce business can and will minimize negative impacts as much as possible.
Q: What are some of the big technological innovations iTradeNetwork is currently working on? Can you give me a sense of what’s new and on the horizon?
A: I’ve mentioned the new iTradeBlockchain solution we launched earlier this year. I can’t go into details yet, but expect to hear some important news about that in the near future. Also, we just launched iTradeOrder, our new procurement application tailored for mid-market retailers, as well as new functionality in our traceability suite and existing procurement application for our customers to more easily comply with regulatory mandates in the Safe Food for Canadians Act. In addition to that, we’re working on a number of different analytics-related initiatives to evolve our platform into one that provides more predictive and prescriptive analytics, in light of the fact we have two decades-worth of supply chain data.
Q: How can fresh produce businesses get smarter when it comes to managing their supply chains?
A: When organizations operate in siloes internally, that creates headaches. Managing transportation, purchasing, inventory separately from each other often results in conflicting strategies and bad coordination. Strong supply chain leadership combined with integrated planning processes where all functions are involved just makes businesses run better.
Being resistant to change can also be a big strategic mistake. The reality is that organizations with clear strategies and goals, that also understand the role technology plays, have a clear competitive advantage over businesses that continue to do things ‘because that’s how they’ve always been done.’ That said, adopting technology for technology’s sake isn’t good either. There are a ton of tools out there in the marketplace, so it’s important for businesses to have an integrated, coordinated technology strategy in order to avoid adopting tools in an ad hoc or piecemeal fashion. Your technology should fit into your processes.
Q: Are there any specific case studies or examples of how you’ve transformed businesses you provide supply chain tech for?
A: We actually just published a new case study with Associated Wholesale Growers here in the U.S. They were already using our procurement application when they decided to go live with iTradeFresh, our fresh inspection and quality analytics module. By doing so, they’ve identified weak links in their supply chain using vendor analytics, they’ve streamlined and standardized inbound produce inspections across their distribution centers, and they’ve also identified trends for rejected products and significantly reduced the time and cost spent dealing with rejected products. In a nutshell, their customers are loving their produce.
Q: Where do you want iTradeNetwork to be in 10 years?
A: We want to continue to build our reputation as a recognized global leader in our space, solidifying our position as the premier software provider for managing what we call ‘the challenge of fresh.’