Pressure building to improve food traceability infrastructure

by Keith Nunes
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The ability to trace food and beverage products as well as the ingredients that comprise finished items along the entire supply chain in an expeditious fashion is gaining momentum. Unfortunately, a gap is emerging between what federal regulators consider expeditious and what is currently attainable by a majority of food companies. The end result is added pressure on companies throughout the food and beverage supply chain to invest in technology and in systems meant to close the gap.

Food product traceability is a core component of President Obama’s Food Safety Working Group and has been the focus of several studies and public meetings held in the past few months. The Food Safety Working Group has recommended the development of a food traceability system that shortens the time it takes to identify and retrieve product. At its most basic, the goal of the Working Group is to ensure outbreaks of illness from food are rare, limited in scale and short in duration.

As Jerold Mande, U.S. Department of Agriculture undersecretary for food safety, said in a recent joint Food and Drug Administration and U.S.D.A. meeting about traceability, “Despite the dedicated efforts of food safety officials across the country, our capacity to trace tainted products is seriously limited. Poor record keeping and inadequate information about food sources, ingredients or distribution — particularly at the retail level — make tracing a cumbersome process and make recalls less effective.”

A study commissioned by the F.D.A., conducted by the Institute of Food Technologists and released this past month, noted significant differences in current product traceability practices among various segments of the food industry. The I.F.T. researchers found consistency in the issues that complicate product tracing, which are mostly focused around the types of data collected, how the data are captured, and data sharing within a processing plant and among partners along the supply chain.

The general lack of consistency in types of data collected, as well as absence of definitions of key terms such as “lot” or “batch,” appear to be major hindrances to effective product tracking. The I.F.T. found that data capture is achieved through several methods with the most common being pen and paper, bar codes, radio frequency identification and other electronic systems.

The speed that information may be retrieved and communicated varies with the type of medium used. The I.F.T. noted great disparity in the types of information shared among business partners. Data critical to the traceability of products, such as lot numbers, are seldom recorded or communicated. Information relevant to product tracing is transmitted through paperwork such as invoices, purchase orders, and bills of lading that may be in paper or electronic format.

Lot numbers are generally not included in the data transmissions. The bottom line is many food companies treat product traceability as an added function to existing management systems such as inventory control, warehouse management and accounting. Therefore, discerning costs related to product tracing is difficult. Some sectors, such as retail and restaurants, do not even keep records with lot specific information, relying on suppliers for that information.

At the beginning of this year the food industry was stunned by the size and scope of the Peanut Corporation of America recall that involved peanut paste contaminated with Salmonella. Consumers and regulatory officials were shocked by the confusion and slowness that characterized this situation as many food companies tried to ascertain whether any of their products were implicated in the recall. It is certainly hoped that if another recall similar to the P.C.A. event occurs that the industry will respond more expeditiously. This response will require a more consistent and comprehensive product traceability infrastructure to be in place.

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