by Amanda Ibey
When Camilla Behn joined Tonewood Maple in November 2013 as its operations manager, she quickly realized that if the pure maple syrup and specialty products company wanted to continue its growth and expansion, then it needed a new streamlined and more efficient computer tracking system.
Prior to her arrival, everything from record keeping, to accounting, to traceability of where its food and inventory items were distributed, to tracking of expiration dates of the ingredients used in its products, was being done manually in spreadsheets. Behn set out to find a solution, but to no avail.
“There were different versions of QuickBooks that we could have used,” said Behn, “but the software was so expensive for a small company like ours that I just couldn’t find something that could work.”
That’s when Behn decided to call Robin Morris, founder of the Mad River Food Hub in Waitsfield. The Mad River Food Hub is a licensed vegetable and meat processing facility that provides small local food producers and processors, including Tonewood Maple, with a wide range of services such as business planning and distribution of products to local retail outlets in Montpelier, Waterbury, Burlington and the Mad River Valley. They also provide packaging, meat processing, and dry, cool and frozen storage spaces.
Behn’s call was well-timed, because her dilemma was exactly what Morris had spent the last year looking to solve.
Food Safety Requirements
The Mad River Food Hub requires businesses that use its facility to have what is called lot tracking for food traceability. Food traceability refers to the record keeping system of a business to track where its products have gone such as to which retail outlets or restaurants; the history of the animal that went into say, the bacon or sausage; and what ingredients went into a final product, like the maple syrup used in Tonewood’s pure maple sugar cubes. Food traceability is a key component in food safety. If an ingredient or product is found to be tainted, a business must know immediately where those ingredients and products were shipped so it can issue a recall.
Although the use of lot tracking isn’t a mandate right now for small food producers statewide, within one to four years that’s expected to change. The FDA is in the process of finalizing regulations authorized by the 2011 enactment of the Food Safety Modernization Act. Morris says these regulations will significantly impact many small Vermont food processing companies by increasing food safety regulations, specifically the requirement to have traceability, like lot tracking, on all products.
Businesses that will be impacted range from meat processing companies, like those that make sausage and bacon, to value-added businesses like cheesemakers. Morris estimates that up to 400 Vermont food processing businesses will be impacted by the regulations.
“I’d say that today, most small businesses are not tracking, and I understand why. When you’re just starting out, it’s not the first thing on your mind,” said Morris. “But if you’re making and selling food, you should have traceability. Lot tracking is a best practice for the industry, and any food company has an obligation to keep their customers safe.”
Finding a Solution
While Morris knew the businesses that used the Mad River Food Hub facility already had lot tracking in place, he also understood that many companies like Tonewood Maple were using spreadsheets and doing everything by hand. He figured there had to be a more efficient and cost-effective management solution. He also knew that his companies weren’t the only ones struggling with this issue in Vermont, so in early 2013, Morris launched a three-phase project with funding and assistance from the Vermont Farm & Forest Viability Program, a program of the Vermont Housing & Conservation Board (VHCB) and the Center for an Agricultural Economy’s Vermont Food Venture Center.
For the project, VHCB contracted with Stan Ward, a software professional, farmer and value-added processor, to first develop a paper-based lot tracking system to understand exactly what all companies would require. The next step was to complete in-depth market research of existing food traceability software solutions, and the last step was to work with a cross-functional team of Vermont food system stakeholders to evaluate over 130 different software solutions.
In late 2013, DEAR Inventory was selected to provide small businesses with food and product traceability and accounting solutions. The system offers companies the ability to integrate with QuickBooks Online, XERO cloud-based accounting services, other cloud-based services including e-commerce solutions like Shopify, Magento and eBay, as well as shipping logistics ShipStation, which connects with FedEx, UPS, USPS, DHL and international express mailing service. As part of the agreement between DEAR and the Mad River Food Hub, DEAR will provide functional enhancements to improve its support of food processing businesses and is offering a special first-year pricing for all Vermont food businesses.
A New Beginning
When Behn placed her call to Morris, he was preparing to create a pilot group of members from the Mad River Food Hub and the Vermont Food Venture Center in Hardwick to test DEAR Inventory. Behn slid in as part of the pilot group, which also consists of a wide variety of businesses, including Artisan Meats of Vermont, Joe’s Soups, Vermont Bean Crafters, Vermont Food Venture Center (lightly processed foods), and Vermont Switchel.
Behn said she’s already seen an immediate positive impact for the business. “The great thing about this [DEAR] is it’s an affordable program for small producers. And there are three distinct benefits,” said Behn. “One, it helps with cost accounting; two, it allows us to track and flag expired products and three, we can track products for safety and recalls.”
“When we buy a raw good from a distributor to use in one of our products, say maple syrup,” she went on to explain, “then if that product becomes tainted and has to be recalled, we know which batches of our products contained that tainted product. With the system we can quickly recall the batches and can notify the appropriate distributors.”
The pilot group is expected to complete its work between April and May, and then other Vermont companies will be able to purchase the system. Morris acknowledges that this system will do more than just help Vermont companies meet federal regulation standards; it has the potential to help them enter brand new markets.
“While the FDA has a minimum requirement for food safety, it’s really larger companies like Whole Foods that are setting the industry standard because they require food processors to have food traceability requirements that are way above the FDA’s,” says Morris. “Not having software to manage food traceability can hinder progress, and if people want to grow their businesses and ultimately sell to companies like Whole Foods, then they need to use lot tracking. In solving this problem for our members, we’re helping to solve it for all Vermonters.”