Do you ever think about where your next meal is coming from?  Literally?

We’re in an era where we’re more interested in the provenance of our food than ever. We’re concerned about contamination and other issues of food safety, food allergies and other sensitivities, country of origin labeling, fish mislabeling, labeling of organic and genetically modified organism (GMO) foods, local suppliers and sustainability. Not to mention foodie snobbism. Yet our food continues to be dependent on paper, writes Tony Marciante, chef and owner of Chef Tony’s in Bethesda, Md., in GigaOm.

“Enter the world of food distribution, however, and you all but travel back in time to the last century,” Marciante describes. “Much as it was done throughout the 1900s, food distributors use a largely paper-based system and onsite visits to take orders and payments. Phone orders and fax are widely used, sure, but ecommerce options — even basic email — are scarcely found.” In fact, a number of the postings in his own blog about the restaurant business have to do with document handling, such as “converting a PDF to Word” (to modify a menu, for example).

Paperwork is also involved for Jay Gilbertson and Ken Seguine, who make the first pumpkin-seed oil ever produced in the United States.  Organic certification is another big source of paperwork — the California Certified Organic Farmers organization, which is working on reducing the amount of paper required, estimates that its 2,500 certified organic farmers required more than 1 million pages of paperwork. The annual inspection takes an entire day, Seguine notes.

There are some ways in which the food industry is moving to paperless processes. These include:

  • Point-of-sale systems that track sales numbers, inventories, staff time and financials and print orders around the restaurant
  • Enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems that simplify and streamline the process of invoicing, resulting in quicker cash flow
  • Tablets to take orders
  • Online reservation and ordering systems
  • Food testing labs
  • Cloud-based systems for managing employee work schedules and saving menus and business documents
  • Various forms of social media for interacting with customers, community members and the press
  • CRM systems for tracking high-margin banquet orders
  • Digital marketing (text and email) for deals, using names acquired from deal services
  • Loyalty-tracking systems

Still, the food distribution supply chain itself is dependent on paper.

One of the questions that arises is whether a paperless food supply chain would favor large producers over small ones. “Are you out of your mind?” writes one commenter in response to the suggestion that food and nutrition vendors be better integrated online. “What you are envisioning would drive small farmers completely out of business, and put an end to farmer’s markets and stands. Only the factory farms will have the ability (money) to keep up-to-date information available online. It will also most likely set the organic food movement back several years.”

But others feel that online systems would actually be an improvement in that respect. The current paper-based system favors big suppliers and makes it hard for smaller buyers, Marciante writes. In addition, smaller providers might be more agile and better able to leverage such a system, which could result in a more level playing field for the smaller suppliers and buyers. “Standardization, especially open standards, should make it easier for smaller players to get their information out to a mass audience in a format that might be more consumer-friendly,” writes GigaOm analyst Stacey Higginbotham.

 “If any industry process is ripe for disruption, it is this one,” Marciante writes. “My vision of a perfect world that marries food and tech is one where software would allow me to input my menu and automatically order the right supplies to create it. If it could then create a workflow schedule for my team and publish the menu, which would then be marketed to my customers, I would truly be in heaven.”

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