I.F.T. tackles traceability

by Erica Shaffer
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CHICAGO -- A study conducted by the Institute of Food Technologists uncovered common problems among the food industry's varied systems used for product tracing. Under contract with the Food and Drug Administration, the I.F.T. convened a panel to examine traceability systems in the food and some non-food industries, said Jennifer McEntire, research scientist and manager of science and technology projects for the I.F.T. Fifty-eight food companies participated in the study. The I.F.T. also was tasked with taking a global view of traceability by examining companies, policies and product tracing systems abroad, she said.

The researchers found that traceability systems within the food industry varied in sophistication — from paper records kept manually to electronic systems. In general, larger companies had the most sophisticated systems compared to their smaller counterparts. But all segments of the food industry used paper documents as part of their product tracing recordkeeping, the study said.

“Paper records are definitely out there, whether that’s paper that’s shared between trading partners or just within a firm,” Ms. McEntire said.

But the I.F.T. study found variations among traceability systems were complicating product tracing. The report cited a lack of consistency in the types of data collected, how the data was captured and data sharing within a facility and among trading partners as the most common obstacles to effective product tracing.

“We heard from the supplier end that they would supply whatever information their customers wanted in whatever format their customers wanted,” Ms. McEntire said. “This meant that for the same product they would be providing and maintaining different types of information because there is currently not an agreed upon standard.”

The I.F.T. also found a great disparity in the information being shared among trading partners. The report said lot numbers, which are critical to product traceability, were seldom recorded or shared. Other elements essential to product tracing could be found on invoices, bills of lading or purchase orders, but lot numbers were generally not included on the forms. Ms. McEntire said the I.F.T. also found the food industry lacked common definitions for key terms.

“The best example of this is the term ‘lot,’ which often was used to describe product received in a day, in a shipment, on a pallet, even if there were many manufacturing lots in that newly acquired lot,” she said. “Internal traceability is impossible in this case.”

Despite the confusion most of the study participants said they felt change was coming to product tracing, and they wanted to be proactive about dealing with it.

“Some wanted to lead the way and try to develop a solution that would work for their industry instead of having a solution imposed upon them,” Ms. McEntire said. “Others were very scared to invest in the change if they didn't know what was going to be required in the future — they didn't want to change and then change again when the target moved.”

As the I.F.T. looked at providing guidelines to establish a comprehensive product tracing system, Ms. McEntire said the group felt strongly the system should be as simple as possible, user friendly, and, to the extent possible, use existing industry systems.

To address the issues raised by the study, the I.F.T. recommended:

1. Standardized expressions of key data should be agreed upon;
2. Education on Critical Tracking Events (C.T.E.) and key data elements should be agreed upon; and
3. Evidence of appropriate implementation should be part of standard audits.

The I.F.T. also recommended each supply chain member must:
 Identify the C.T.E. in order to trace product;
 Record standardized key data elements for each C.T.E. that link incoming with outgoing product, whether products is transformed (internal tracing) or changes location (external tracing); and
 Provide F.D.A. with relevant key data elements for each C.T.E., in an electronic format within 24 hours of any request.

The institute will present its findings at a public meeting with F.D.A. and the Food Safety Inspection Service. The meeting is scheduled for December. Click here to see the full report. FSM

Erica Shaffer
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