Food safety requires full traceability
Proposed food safety legislation calls for a full history of the food. That means every point in the supply chain, from the feed additive producers to the retailers who sell consumers their dinner, will have to communicate with each other about every step in the creation, production, packaging and transport of that product. Christian Barcan, from the Traceability Institute, said that constitutes full traceability. Visual identification tags, radio frequency identification tags and barcodes are “the basic cornerstones of traceability, but are not [full] traceability,” he said at a food traceability workshop at the National Institute of Animal Agriculture’s annual Animal ID Expo. A complete food traceability system may not even involve words, just numbers that conform to a set of standards and are stored in a system that’s accessible at all levels of the food chain.
It is a fear that’s out there, that with a system like this, that now everyone knows how I’m producing my product,” he said. “But all the information you need to give to make a system work is unique identifiers.”
Each group of hogs, for example, would receive a batch number that would stay with them until consumption. The producer, processor and wholesaler all have a code number for their operation which would be recorded in an accessible format.
Components of a traceability system
It’s important to understand that food traceability isn’t the same thing as a trace-forward, trace-back system, Barcan said. Currently, the Bioterrorism Act requires all producers to know who is ahead of them in the supply chain and who is behind them. A food traceability system would allow everyone in the chain to know what happens at each step in the process.
The first major component of a traceability system is the unique identifier, like a barcode or ID tag, Barcan said. The second step is that the unique identifiers must comply with a set of standards, like the Produce Traceability Initiative or the National Animal Identification System. Then, there needs to be a method of collecting data about the product, when the animal was born, where and perhaps its weight at sale. Data collection and storage is the tricky issue, Barcan said. Each step in the supply chain might have a separate system for its internal tracking. The ability to trace the product’s movement within one company’s boundaries doesn’t mean anything if that information isn’t linked to the farm before it and the packer after it. “Internal traceability without a link to the next step in the supply chain is dead,” Barcan said. “It has to be based on interoperability, the ability for each step in the supply chain to speak to the others.”
Barcan, a former computer programmer, says such programs exist and could be applied to a food traceability system. Trace- Tracker works with the
Traceability Institute and there were several producers at the Animal ID Info Expo using similar software. Barcan used cell phones to explain how such a network of information could work. People use many different cell phone service providers but are able to call people on other networks because each telephone has a unique number and the phone companies share that information.
Each batch of a product (like a swine herd) or an individual product (like a dairy cow) would receive a unique identifier (a number or code) that’s shared in an accessible network of databases.
It can be difficult to convince farmers and ranchers that implementing a traceability system is good for them, Barcan said, because the payback on initial investment comes in the mid to long term and they’re afraid a traceability system could hurt them. But, a traceability system also offers marketing and branding opportunities. And it could protect their product in the case of a recall, he added.
Under the current recall system, it would be nearly impossible, the group of eight industry professionals in attendance agreed, to be able to identify all of the meat from slaughtered hogs that had at one point in their life eaten contaminated feed. The contaminated meat would most likely make it to market and be consumed before the feed company knew there was a problem.
It’s then the responsibility of the hog processor to recall the contaminated meat, but because the processor can’t quickly identify which hogs ate the bad feed, they have to recall all hogs slaughtered in a specific time frame, recalling good product along with the bad. A 2007 study Barcan highlighted, entitled “Economics of Traceability for Mitigation of Food Recall Costs,” showed the volume of tainted meat in a hypothetical recall was reduced from 572.7 million pounds of meat to 46.8 million pounds of meat with a traceability system in place.
It saved nearly $1.85 billion dollars. Recalls can devastate farmers even when there is nothing wrong with their products. The salmonella outbreak in tomatoes put 400 farmers who didn’t supply the tainted tomatoes out of business, Barcan said. If the farmers had a food traceability system in place before the outbreak, they could certify to their buyers and customers that their products were safe to eat. It’d allow the farmer to market his product as safe and be able to prove it. The company producing the food must mandate a recall. USDA inspectors can shut a plant down if it doesn’t recall tainted product, but cannot issue a recall on the product. The food safety bill in the House will give the FDA that authority.
Because food recalls are voluntary, a transparent and available history of a steak adds to its value at each step in the line. If a traceability program becomes mandatory, for instance if the Senate takes up and passes a version of the Food Safety Enhancement Act and it becomes law, the playing field will level. Until that happens, as Barcan believes it will, producers have a branding and marketing advantage because they are able to assure consumers that what they are having for dinner tonight is not contaminated.
“The risk of not doing traceability in the markets today is huge. ... Consumers demand safe and trusted food,” he said. “That is undebatable and that is a fact.” — DTN