Food Traceability – Definition, Meaning and Advantages

Food traceability and safety is an up and coming trend. With the slow food, organic, and natural movements more consumers are wanting to know where their food is coming from. Food producers also are making food traceability a trend because each producer wants to know who they can point fingers at when a customer claims that they have become sick from a producer’s food. For most producers, traceability is just one element of any supply-management or quality/safety control system. Tracking an apple from the tree to your mouth is something that each producer needs to know. They need to know where that apple was to make sure that the apple did not go anywhere it shouldn’t have been. So, what exactly is food traceability? How does it work, and what can it accomplish with regards to safety?

Food Traceability

What is traceability and how does it pertain to our food system? The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) defines traceability as the ability to trace the history, application, or location of that which is under consideration. For this paper, that which is under consideration will be food. The ISO uses a very broad definition for traceability which is necessary for several reasons. First, because food is a complex system and traceability has not been developed for every product. Second, because no traceability system is ever complete. Things change, the purveyor changes, the field changes, the picker changes so each company’s food traceability plan must be fluid. For instance, even a hypothetical system for tracking beef-in which consumers scan their packet of beef at the checkout counter and access the animal’s date and location of birth, lineage, vaccination records, and use of mammalian protein supplements-is incomplete. This system does not provide traceability with respect to bacterial control in the barn, use of genetically engineered feed or animal welfare attributes like hours at pasture and play time. Finally, the definition must stay broad because new products are constantly being developed. Each company will have their own definition of food traceability because each company must determine the necessary breadth, depth, and precision of their traceability systems depending on characteristics of their production process and their traceability objectives. Food traceability needs to be a fluid system in order to compensate for the constant changes in the food systems.

Money has been invested into the food traceability industry since companies first started to realize that food traceability was important in the late nineties. However, spending money on food traceability will probably have a return on investment, and often is the difference between a successful company and an unsuccessful one. Food traceability is becoming an important area of concentration for companies. When margins are thin, as they are in the food industry, knowing where your product comes from and the possibility of avoiding a consumer lawsuit in some cases justifies the expense. This means that if a company invests one million dollars into creating a food traceability system, they will probably save more money from avoided lawsuits in the end run. This is not only true for very high risk foods but also true of any food product that is at risk.

The government is also aware that food traceability is an issue that is going to have to be looked at. Many industry analysts believe that every company that deals with food and the supply chain will have to eventually embrace food traceability, if they do not, the consequence may be their business. The facts are uncompromising and pressure continues to mount from consumers, the media, retailers and numerous government regulatory agencies. With the government endorsing food traceability systems, most companies are realizing that food traceability is important. However, most companies do not know where to start to build a food traceability system.

How does a company trace food? Often electronic coding systems are used to help trace food. In some cases the buyer manages the food traceability system; in other cases supply companies manage the system. Retailers such as Wal-Mart have created proprietary supply-chain information systems, which they require their suppliers to adopt. Companies start with a primary producer, which include the farmer and grower, then the processor, which include the packer, re-packer, processor and, if applicable, the manufacturer. Then the product moves to distribution possibly including the wholesaler or the distributor,a retail store or foodservice operator.

For examplie, if you own a small restaurant and need to trace an apple used for apple pie. First, you have the farmer who takes care of the apple trees. The farmer will need to record who came into contact with the tree, and what supplies or chemicals came into contact with the tree. Then the apple will be picked. The farmer will need to record the person who picked the apple. Next, the apple is shipped to the processor who packs the apples. The processor must record everyone who came into contact with the apple or the boxes that the apple is packed in. Next, the apple goes to the distributor. The same thing happens at the distributor, everyone who comes into contact with the apple or anything that comes into contact with the apple is recorded. When you, the purchaser for the small business, order the apple you need to know that the supplier knows where the apple came from so that if one of your customers gets sick because of the apple you can tell the supplier and the supplier can stop all distribution of that apple.

Suppliers are adapting to the changing food traceability systems. This is because as a small business owner, you want to rely on a supplier to trace your food rather than your company tracing the food. Also, larger companies, consumers and retailers all realize the need for food traceability so they in turn buy from companies with food traceability-like the apple example, the company needs to know where the apple or product originated and where it has been.

Companies have a few objectives when using food traceability systems. First, improve supply management. Supply management improves because when you are using food traceability you will know where a single product is in your supply line. Second, facilitate trace back for food safety and quality. This means that if a consumer becomes sick from a product that came from a producer; the producer can trace the product to make sure no other contaminated products go out and the contaminated products that are circulating are recalled. Another objective is to differentiate and market foods with subtle of undetectable quality attributes. Companies improve supply management when using food traceability because they know which producers are giving them Grade A product and which producers are giving them Grade B product. This allows the supply companies to decide which producers they want to keep and which they want to let go. This also can contribute to a lower cost distribution system and reduced recall expenses because suppliers know which producer made the mistake so they can pass most of the expense onto the producer. Food traceability also ensures trace back for food safety and quality. Traceability systems help companies isolate the source and extent of the safety or quality control problems. This makes sure if an infected product gets to the shelf it can be removed right away and possibly stop an outbreak. The better and more precise the tracing system, the faster a producer can identify and resolve food safety or quality problems.

Companies also have started to enhance food traceability by sending third party safety/quality auditors to the sites to audit the quality of the food traceability system. These auditors provide consumers with verification that traceability systems exist to substantiate credence claims. For example, auditors from Food Alliance, a nonprofit organization, certify foods grown with a specific set of sustainable agricultural practices. Having a representative on site also ensures companies are sending the correct product. For instance, in the United States a farm has to be organic for three years in order to get the organic certification on their product. If a producer claims to be organic, and a consumer finds out that they are not organic, consequences can occur for the company, supplier, and producer. With food traceability there is no danger that producers would try to cheat consumers by selling non-GE (genetically engineered) soybeans as GE soybeans. In cases where markets do not supply enough traceability for food safety trace back, a number of industry groups have developed food safety and trace back standards. For example, the California cantaloupe industry has incorporated traceability requirements in their marketing strategy in order to monitor food safety practices. In addition, buyers in every sector are increasingly relying on contracting, vertical integration, or associations to improve product traceability and facilitate the verification of safety and quality attributes. The government may step in to ensure food safety by creating policy aimed at increasing the cost of distributing unsafe (non traceable) foods, such as fines or plant closures, or policies that increase the probability of catching unsafe food producers, such as increased safety testing or foodborne illness surveillance, will also provide firms with incentives to strengthen their traceability systems. Foodborne illness surveillance systems increase the capability of the entire food supply chain to respond to food safety problems before they grow and affect more consumers.

In the past decade the United States has had many outbreaks. Food can become contaminated at many different steps – on the farm, in processing or distribution facilities, during transit, at retail and food service establishments, and in the home. The ability to trace pathways of any food, including tomatoes and other fresh produce, through every point in the supply chain is crucial for limiting foodborne illness in an outbreak, for preventing future outbreaks, and for reducing the impact on the segments of the industry whose products were not associated with the illnesses. The pathways that fresh produce travels from field to consumer have become increasingly complex, with items sometimes changing hands many times in the supply chain. For instance by the time an apple goes from a tree to a consumer’s mouth it comes into contact with multiple people, the person who checks the apples, the person who picks the apple, the person who transports the apples, and the person who checks the apple at the distribution plant.

In 2007 there was a multi-state outbreak of Salmonella associated with the consumption of peanut butter. There are many illnesses associated with fresh produce, which causes food traceability to be a growing concern for the FDA. FDA is the Federal agency that regulates almost everything we eat except for meat, poultry, and processed egg products, which are regulated by the partners at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Fresh produce presents special challenges for the FDA. Addressing the way fresh produce is grown, harvested, and moved from field to fork is crucial to minimizing the risk of microbial contamination. In recent years the FDA have worked with the industry to develop guidance on ways to prevent or minimize potential contamination, conducting educational outreach to consumers on safe food handling practices, sampling and analyzing both domestic and imported produce for pathogens, and working with industry and foreign countries to promote the use of good growing, harvesting, packing, transporting, and processing practices. However, education is only one part of better food traceability, research is another critical element. The FDA is currently working on improving the identification and detection of disease-causing bacteria and toxins in a variety of foods.

Food traceability is becoming an important area for concentration for companies because when margins are thin, knowing where your product comes from and the possibility of avoiding a consumer suing the company is worth the company (in some cases). The government and companies are now seeing the rewards of food traceability and putting money into food traceability. They have realized that spending money on food traceability will probably have a pay off in the end, and often is the difference between a successful company and an unsuccessful one. Food traceability also ensures traceback for food safety and quality. Traceability systems help firms isolate the source and extent of safety or quality control problems. This makes sure if an infected product gets to the shelf it can be removed right away and possibly stop an outbreak. The better and more precise the tracing system, the faster a producer can identify and resolve food safety or quality problems. Escherichia coli O157:H7 and Salmonella are responsible for a large number of deaths each year, these can in part be avoided with better food tracing systems to ensure that food gets to consumers quicker.

The concept of food origin tracing is not new to the industry. The safety and integrity of our food has always been a concern for meat, food and beverage producers. However, the world has become more risky. Increased globalization of supply chain sourcing and distribution, combined with political instability, more rapid spread of contamination and disease, and the growing threat of international terrorism have brought the issues of food supply safety and traceability to the forefront of public concern.