The unending headlines about contamination in our food supply has made food safety a major concern. Also consumers want to know how fresh is the food; 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, hand-offs 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 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, etc.) to improve processes and reduce spoilage.
Choosing the Depth and Precision of Traceability
There are trade-offs to consider in deciding at what points in the supply chain to collect information, then which information to gather, 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.
Link-Through Needed at Transformation Points
"Link-through" record-keeping systems are needed at any node in the supply chain where blending, mixing or 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) and/or RFID. However, the use of networked platforms, as well as RFID, for food traceability is still in its infancy. It remains to be seen how the market will evolve and whether these types of systems will gain traction soon.
Most of the food industry has been reluctant to spend much on traceability solutions and services. For 2009, there is uncertainty about the growth rate for food traceability adoption, not the least due to pressures from the economic slowdown. Existing regulations in the EU, and to a lesser extent the U.S., 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 very modest growth in 2009.
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