The increasing complexity and interconnected nature of today’s food supply chain calls for proactive risk mitigation — at every step in the supply chain.
In 2019, it is absolutely essential for food industry trading partners to focus on traceability to regain consumer confidence, proactively manage their reputation in the marketplace, and protect themselves from future losses.
From Reactive to Proactive
“If you don’t know where your romaine lettuce is from, do not eat it.” This statement from the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) in late November after one of the most widespread food-borne illness outbreaks was a sobering reminder of just how vulnerable our food supply chain really is.
The romaine lettuce crisis not only left consumers fearful, it caused an entire commodity category to suffer long-lasting financial losses. According to Nielsen, romaine lettuce sales fell nearly 45 percent in May due to the outbreak tied to Yuma, Arizona, and along with sales of iceberg (22 percent) and red leaf (17 percent) — all key indicators of the public’s perception of safety.
Supply chain partners must work together in 2019 to leverage this spotlight moment on food traceability and move toward a culture of vigilance and brand protection, or risk further long-lasting damage. Using a reliable foundation for data sharing based on GS1 Standards, many companies in the fresh foods industry have already made traceability progress; however, large gaps in the supply chain exist where trading partners have not yet modernized their systems with electronic record-keeping or implemented standards for better systems interoperability.
With consumers demanding more product variety, a retailer may have dozens of suppliers to manage globally, complicating trace-back procedures as they shift from one linear chain to a web-like network with many different nodes supplying product at different times of the year. This has led to more multi-state outbreaks recently, making the source more difficult to identify with certainty.
During a recall or withdrawal, GS1 Standards are vital for tracing product faster and more accurately in several ways:
Additionally, many companies including Tyson, Walmart and Cargill have been piloting blockchain to help optimize traceability. While blockchain has driven renewed interest in cross-organizational data sharing, it does not by itself provide end-to-end traceability. The integration of internal and external business processes must occur. Standards are foundational to creating this interoperability, and a standards-based data structure has been recommended by technology providers to ensure blockchain success.
While food-borne illness outbreaks are one of the harsh realities of a complex food supply chain, taking a more proactive approach to traceability can limit damage to the public health, and to a company’s bottom line and reputation. In 2019, look for the food industry to join together to learn from the romaine crisis and close existing gaps in traceability processes.
Angela Fernandez is vice president of initiatives for GS1 US.
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