KANSAS CITY — As consumer confidence in food safety erodes because of recent Salmonella outbreaks, the public increasingly is becoming interested in knowing more about the food it consumes.
A consumer survey, released July 15 by Deloitte Consulting, L.L.P., found that 80% of those surveyed wanted country of origin labels on fresh fruits and vegetables. In fact, 56% said they would like to be able to use their cell phones to scan a product’s bar code and see "date of packing" and "use by" dates for fresh produce.
While that technology is a few years down the road, produce traceability has been cited repeatedly by Food and Drug Administration officials as a restricting factor in its search for the source of the Salmonella outbreak. In lieu of a solid, national traceability program for produce, F.D.A. investigators said they are relying on "paper and pencil" records to traceback steps along the tomato supply chain.
Electronic traceability systems do exist, however. The European Union has had obligatory traceability systems in place for all business in the food chain since January 2005. And in the United States, the United Fresh Produce Association organized a Produce Traceability Initiative, comprised of 40 to 50 members from throughout the industry supply chain, to address the issue. Companies such as YottaMark, Inc. have developed software traceback solutions for a range of products. So why doesn’t the industry have an all-encompassing system in place? Some say it’s a matter of standards.
Different standards an issue
In a call for F.D.A. traceability standards, Chris Waldrop, director of the Food Policy Institute, said, "We’ve heard from F.D.A. officials that tracing tomatoes through the food supply chain is a long and difficult process. The technology for an effective traceback system already exists. In fact, some firms and industries are using traceback systems for their own products and business concerns. However, a scattered approach is insufficient. The F.D.A. must require a standardized system so that it can effectively and efficiently trace back contaminated food to the source."
Food producers must be able to trace one step back and one step forward along the supply chain by law, but many companies focus solely on their own internal traceability systems, without regard for communication along the entire supply chain.
"Everyone is trying to serve the end consumer, but most traceability systems stop at the loading dock," said Elliott Grant, chief marketing officer for YottaMark, Inc. "Traceability is now locked up in each individual location so it doesn’t translate from steps along the supply chain. Traceability is going to become a business requirement in the U.S."
YottaMark designed a database tracking system called HarvestMark to generate instant traceback for its food industry clients, which include Driscoll’s Berries and Leger and Son.
"HarvestMark just makes good sense," said Greg Leger of Leger and Son. "If there is any issue with our product, either quality or health, we can trace almost immediately. My opinion is: the sooner the industry embraces this technology, the better for us all. Doesn’t matter if there is an issue with my product, my neighbor’s product, or my competitor’s product, the sooner we can isolate the issue, the less devastation we will see as an industry."
Transparency vs. trade practices
Mr. Grant said his company has worked closely with the industry to be sure its products comply with both industry standards and client requests. HarvestMark traceability information generally is included on case-level labels (see photo) that the companies use already.
"We can put the information on with ink jets, but labels are really the anchor of the produce industry, whether they be on clamshells, melons or bags," Mr. Grant said. "By putting information on labels, it’s cheapest for growers. We like to keep things simple for customers."
He noted that the industry mostly uses code 128 bar codes for case labels, but that in order to fully comply with industry standards, as outlined by the United Fresh Produce Traceability Initiative, companies need to be more specific with their coding.
"Now companies are using P.M.A. (Produce Marketing Association)-issued generic codes starting with 3383 on their labels," Mr. Grant said. "The industry needs to get everyone to own a G.T.I.N. (Global Trade Item Number) code; that should be the first priority."
Historically, companies resisted applying for G.T.I.N. codes because the annual fees were perceived as costly, especially for small businesses, noted Gary Fleming, vice-president of industry technology and standards for The Produce Marketing Association (P.M.A.). Now he said, companies are grappling with how to fit longer G.T.I.N. numbers onto labels.
Mr. Grant noted that within the G.T.I.N. codes, companies also need a way to track lot numbers and date codes, which they may or may not want consumers to access.
"A lot of our customers don’t want to reveal their exact date of harvest," he said. "Something might get picked, then be chilled in a warehouse to ripen. If a buyer is likely to always pick the newest stuff, then that’s a concern for our customers. We’ve found a way to encrypt lot number and date codes into one lot number, so consumers can’t look at the number and get the harvest date. In the event that the F.D.A. asks for the information, growers can give the F.D.A. access to a web site with its full harvest information."
The company stores its client traceback information on secure, web-accessible sites. Other companies, such as TraceGains, Inc., offer similar food industry tracking systems. Mr. Grant also noted that in the U.S., industry standards have not yet been outlined for item-level traceability in the produce sector.
Mr. Fleming said the Produce Traceability Initiative decided to tackle case-level traceability first, since it would be quickest to address.
"There are more challenges in item-level traceability," he said. "One challenge is that putting a label on a single item can be tricky. You can’t put a label on every green bean in a bag, for example. But we’ve got case-level standards nailed down pretty well, so next we’ll move on to item-level."
The P.M.A. has called for more F.D.A. funding, as the F.D.A.’s "Food Protection Plan," released in November 2007, has been dormant until recently.
"The devastating effect that the ongoing traceback investigation of fresh tomatoes is having on consumer confidence, the tomato industry and the people who rely on it for their livelihoods is all the illustration we need that F.D.A. needs more funding to speed its important work," said Bryan Silbermann, president of the P.M.A.
While the administration said it would give the F.D.A. $275 million for food safety, the agency has yet to say how the funds would be used. A U.S. Department of Agriculture study from 2004 titled "Traceability in the U.S. Food Supply" cautioned against too much government regulation on traceability. Study authors noted:
"Government may also consider mandating traceability to increase food safety, but this may impose inefficiencies on already efficient private traceability systems. If mandatory systems do not allow for variations in traceability systems, they will likely end up forcing firms to make adjustments to already efficient systems or creating parallel systems."
The report noted that costs for traceability systems play a role in the extent to which industry is willing to invest in the process.
"A system for tracking every input and process to satisfy every objective would be enormous and very costly," the report said. "In some instances, the private costs and benefits of traceability may not be the same as the social costs and benefits."
Mr. Fleming said collaboration between industry and government may be the best course of action.
"The reality is that we can’t do it on our own," he said. "We need the government, and the government needs us."