The unending headlines about contamination in our food supply has made food safety a major concern. Also, consumers want to know how fresh the food is; where was it grown? Is it really organic? Food traceability is key to reliably answering these and other questions about our food supply. Food traceability involves recording the movements, handoffs, and processing that occurs as food ingredients travel all the way from “farm to fork”. Requirements are driven by safety, brand, and efficiencies:
· Safety – Traceability can help to assure the quality and safety of the food supply; provide rapid, precise recalls; and pinpoint underlying causes of contamination.
· Brand Enhancement – A freshness guarantee is possible when temperature and humidity are recorded, from harvest to final sale. Some consumers will pay a premium for products that demonstrate social responsibility traits or health benefits (e.g. Organic) requiring traceability.
·Supply Chain Efficiencies – Once traceability is in place, companies have precise, detailed historical data about timing, handling, condition, and flow of goods. This can be analyzed to identify weaknesses (e.g. excess dwell times, lack of FIFO disciplines, incorrect storage.) to improve processes and reduce spoilage.
Choosing the Depth and Precision of Traceability
There are tradeoffs to consider in deciding at which points in the supply chain to collect information, which information to collect, and to which level of granularity.
· Which Points in the Chain to Collect Information – Ensuring that a can of coffee is decaffeinated requires collecting information at the processing plant, whereas fair trade certification for a can of coffee requires collecting information at the grower’s farm and operations.
· Which information to collect – There is an infinite amount of information that could be collected, so what is actually collected and recorded depends on what is required by regulations, retailer mandates, or customer needs.
· Unit of Traceability / Level of Granularity – Whether to track each item, case, truckload, batch, silo, field, farm, region, country of origin, by hour or date or season.
Key Elements of Traceability
Identifier – An identifier, such as a label, barcode, or RFID tag, is attached to each separate “traceability unit” as it flows through the chain. The identifier may be unique (serialized item or batch numbers) or non-unique (e.g. “USDA Organic” certification label), or contain both.
Segregation – Segregation of units being tracked (preventing comingling) is vital to maintaining the validity of the identifier and integrity of food as it travels through the chain.For example, organic product needs to be kept segregated from non-organic product, and genetically modified crops separate from non-GM crops. This requires buffer zones between fields, separate silos, separate process lines (or thorough cleaning between batches). Segregation failures can be very expensive. The comingling of StarLink corn (genetically modified for animal feed only) in 2001 took more than 3 years to fix, and by some estimates cost nearly a billion dollars.
Inspection and Audit – Traceability usually must be combined with inspection, audit, and/or certification of specific facilities, processes, and practices. This may be required to meet the standards of a retailer, or government regulator, or consumer-oriented certification, for example, to authenticate that a product is truly organic or Fair Trade or caught with dolphin-safe nets.
Needs Vary by Type of Supply Chain
The supply chains for fresh produce vs. grains vs. meat are quite different and require different traceability mechanisms.For fresh produce, the harvested unit (head of lettuce, bunch of grapes, etc.) can be tracked intact all the way from the farm to the end consumer. In contrast, grains are blended and mixed together at various stages in grain elevators, mills, and bakeries so that a single end product often contains grain from many different fields or even different regions.
Products like meats and produce also have high concerns about pathogenic contamination (compared to grains or spices) putting a higher value on end-to-end traceability in those supply chains. Meat processing plants do much more frequent testing for pathogens compared to a grain mill or bakery.
Link-Through Needed at Transformation Points
“Link-through” record-keeping systems are needed at any node in the supply chain where blending, mixing, transformation of the raw ingredients, or repacking of individual units (cans, loaves, etc.) takes place. These systems record which input lots and batches are used to produce each output item, lot, or batch. This enables retracing finished products back to the original sources (farm or ranch). However, if there is mixing and blending at many points in the chain, by different companies, then trace-back becomes very time-consuming and in some cases nearly impossible. These challenges can be reduced by use of “networked platforms”, third-party internet-based services across the multiple companies in the chain. The use of networked platforms for food traceability is still in its infancy.
There is no one-size-fits-all for food traceability. Supply chains have different needs. Regulations and retailer mandates differ, as do the tastes and wants of different consumer markets. One thing is for sure: as we become more globalized, with more hands touching our end-to-end food supply chain, the need for food traceability will only increase.
2010 Outlook for Food Traceability Solutions:
Most of the food industry has been reluctant to spend much on traceability solutions and services. For 2010, there is a growing interest due to pending legislation. But legislation is often stalled or watered down, so that will likely not be enough to drive strong growth in food traceability adoption. Existing regulations in the EU, and to a lesser extent the US, mandate certain levels of record keeping, as do certification requirements for organic, Fair Trade, and other premium certifications. The ongoing string of contamination events has yielded only modest regulatory demands in this area. One open question is what China will do. Barring exceptional events, expect traceability to continue to have very modest growth in 2010.