CHICAGO — The concept of clean label embraces consumers’ desire for simple foods and transparent formulations while also promoting improved traceability of all raw materials. This is necessary because as the food supply chain becomes more global, full traceability of raw materials, starting even before the farm, will be necessary to ensure food safety.

“In addition to ensuring food safety, traceability prevents product fraud, illegal farming and sustainability,” said Will Fisher, executive director of the Institute of Food Technologists’ (I.F.T.) Global Food Traceability Center (G.F.T.C.). “Our 22-member advisory council originally thought traceability was all about food safety, but we quickly learned there is much more to the picture, which is why full traceability must be part of the global food chain.”

In September 2013, the I.F.T. launched G.F.T.C., a not-for-profit collaborative, public-private partnership. The G.F.T.C. brings together stakeholders in the supply chain to collaborate on product tracing solutions and serves as a scientific and unbiased source on the subject of food traceability. It assists companies and government agencies to better understand the nature of food traceability requirements, how to use technologies to improve responsiveness and reliability in the event of food-related emergencies, and the value and commercial benefits of food traceability.

Tillamook, a farmer-owned Oregon cooperative, is a vertically integrated milk processor, as it uses its own milk in the manufacture of everything from cheese to ice cream to yogurt. Whenever possible, the company sources locally produced fruits for its yogurt and communicates the sourcing to consumers on product labels.

Complicated supply chains of hundreds of ingredients used in food manufacturing make food product traceability a daunting task. In an effort to better protect public health from foodborne illness outbreaks and recalls, governments across the world are in the process of implementing new regulations around food traceability. After all, traceability is only as good as the weakest link.

“It is important for everyone in the supply chain to understand the value of collecting and maintaining product information that supports, at the very least, one-step-forward, one-step-back traceability,” said Tejas Bhatt, program director of G.F.T.C.

Consumers want to know

For the consumer, knowing where a product, or the majority of the product comes from, is often enough, such as the milk used in the manufacture of yogurt. Of course, the yogurt manufacturer should be able to trace the source of all ingredients, including fruits, flavors and sweeteners.

According to U.S. Grocery Shopper Trends 2014 from the Food Marketing Institute, Arlington, Va., retailers increasingly are sharing consumers’ values, attitudes and goals by providing access to health, wellness, discovery and other needs and desires. They are working with consumers, as “being on my side.” At the height of this relationship is a sense that retailers are even more than partners; they are advocates for larger changes, including increased traceability in where products come from and how they are made.

This is exemplified by many of the products sold at specialty grocer and restaurateur Eataly, which has a store in Chicago and New York City. Eataly offers nearly 100 varieties of olive oil from producers that harvest exclusively in Italy. Many of the products are boutique, single-estate olive oils.

Such fresh-focused specialty and natural food stores have positioned themselves as advocates for consumers by taking ownership of the traceability of the products they carry. They are taking stands on issues of food safety, production and sustainability, and generally providing well-curated selections of products.

To assist supply chain players involved with getting food on retailers’ shelves, the I.F.T. offers numerous tools to ensure that all of the chain’s links are solid. Published one year ago in the I.F.T.’s peer-reviewed scientific Journal of Food Science, there is a special supplement entitled “Making traceability work.” The supplement is designed to catalyze and jump start the process of achieving a multi-disciplinary, cross-functional, whole community approach to food traceability. It is available here.

More recently, the G.F.T.C. issued a guidance document on the best practices in food traceability. The document provides a framework for six food industry sectors — bakery, dairy, meat and poultry, processed foods, produce and seafood — and summarizes the similarities and differences among them in regards to traceability. Fifty-five experts from 11 countries were involved in developing the guidance document. It appears in the September 2014 issue of Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety and may be accessed here.

Traceability has long been the mantra of the global wine industry, with many companies vertically integrated, from seed to bottled beverage.

“Our guidance document helps fill in one of the most significant gaps that regulators face when developing new policies: ‘What is the industry currently capable of doing and how much can realistically be asked of them,’” Mr. Bhatt said. “This document can facilitate more balanced, effective, science-based and cost-conscious policies and serve as a blueprint for what is practical for the food industry to improve food safety, save money and help protect the public.”

According to the guidance document, there are various points in a supply chain at which data capture is necessary. These points are referred to as critical tracking events and at these points it is necessary to collect and store key data elements. Critical tracking events include:

•   Transportation events typically support external product tracing between supply-chain locations, resulting from the physical movement of product by air, truck, rail or ship from one supply-chain location to another supply-chain location.

•   Transformation events support internal product tracing within the four walls of a company. Examples include when product ingredients from one or more suppliers or sources are combined, or when a product is further processed such as by cutting, cooking or repacking.

•   Depletion events capture how product is removed from the supply chain, such as when a case of fresh produce is opened and placed in self-service bins at a retail grocery store, or a packaged product is sold at a retail grocery store, or when a case of product is used in preparing menu items at a restaurant.

Vertically integrated businesses eliminate multiple steps in product tracking, easing the burdens associated with data collection. Such businesses allow for improved response if a recall is necessary, which mitigates economic loss. One such example of a vertically integrated ingredient supplier is Kemin, Des Moines, Iowa, a company that controls its rosemary extract production process from breeding to growing to extracting to formulating. The process control from seed to extract provides assurance to food manufacturers that there is traceability from the food ingredient back to the plant seed.

“All the way up until the time our customer — the food manufacturer — receives our rosemary extract, we know everything about it,” said John Greaves, vice-president-specialty crops. “If there is any question at any time, we can take you to the field and show you where that batch of product originated. We know when it was harvested, the field conditions, how long it was grown for, all to a level of familiarity that makes our customers really comfortable about buying this ingredient.”

A ranking of countries

In the same issue of Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety, there is a report evaluating and comparing the traceability regulations of 21 Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development countries. One of its main findings is European Union (E.U.) countries ranked highest when it comes to global food traceability regulations and requirements.

“While there are a variety of benefits to global trading of food items, there are also many complications, particularly when it comes to tracing products internationally in the event of foodborne illness, animal or plant disease, or product recall,” said Sylvain Charlebois, professor, College of Business and Economics, University of Guelph, Ontario, Canada, one of the authors of the report. “This report provides a comparative assessment to aid in discussions concerning harmonization of food traceability requirements and where countries can continue to focus on improvements.”

The authors evaluated and ranked each country based on aggregated responses to a series of questions developed to assess their traceability policies and programs. The questions asked whether mandatory traceability regulations exist at the national level; if regulations include imported products, and the nature of required documentation for imports; if an electronic database for traceability exists and if present, its accessibility; and if labeling regulations allow consumer access to help their understanding of traceability.

Member countries of the E.U. all scored as “superior.” Australia, Canada, Japan, Brazil, New Zealand and the United States received an overall ranking score of “average.” China received an overall world ranking of “poor.” Data from the Russian Federation was insufficient, so it was not ranked.

“Currently, the complexity of following food through a global supply chain makes the process of traceability slow and inefficient in times of crisis,” said Brian Sterling, managing director of the G.F.T.C., one of the authors of the report. “This is why it’s imperative that traceability requirements and regulations be harmonized across the globe. Industry and regulators need to minimize the potential for misunderstanding and delays due to difficulties in understanding each country’s practices. Harmonizing requirements has been shown to mitigate unnecessary costs of compliance.”

The questions and overall rankings may be viewed in the full report.

Given the complexity of the global food supply chain, full traceability is challenging, yet definitely necessary in order for the food system to be trusted by all involved, including growers, producers, suppliers, retailers and consumers. Full traceability will be the norm in the very near future and it would be wise for all interested parties to explore the role their business will play in such a system.