Tactics for Improving Food Traceability (Online Exclusive) November 1, 2009

IFT recently released a technical report that recommends guidelines to establish a comprehensive system to track the movement of ingredients and food products from farm to point of sale.

By IFT Science and Policy Initiatives Staff

With the recent increase in cases of foodborne illnesses, improving the traceability of food is integral to safeguard the United States food supply chain. Traceability provides the means to track every component of food from farm to point of sale. An effective traceability system would provide the precision, efficiency, and rapid response time necessary to protect public health. Additionally, improved traceability may help maintain consumer confidence in the food supply chain and alleviate potential economic hardship faced by the industry.

Under contract with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) examined current practices and technologies used to trace food products. In conjunction with a panel of experts, IFT assessed other industries to determine best practices for traceability and technology platforms. The assessment also included an in-depth review of the costs associated with implementing effective traceability systems and technologies. Product tracing information was collected from 58 companies spanning produce, packaged consumer goods, processed ingredients, distribution, foodservice, retail, and animal feed.

Study Findings
Of the food companies IFT evaluated, the majority acknowledged the importance of a rapid and precise product tracing system. Most of the companies use systems to trace their products, but their systems are dissimilar, ranging from manual recordkeeping to sophisticated electronic-based data systems. In particular, IFT observed significant variability among the tracing mechanisms between various segments of the food industry. The inconsistency is apparent not only in data collection methods but also data types and designation of lots vs batches.

During a food safety emergency, a rapid response is critical, and dissimilarity between company tracking systems hinders immediacy. U.S. regulatory agencies spend a significant amount of time reconciling data from dissimilar company tracking systems. Nevertheless, most companies believe they are in full compliance with the Bioterrorism Act of 2002, which requires the maintenance of accessible immediate source (1-step back) and subsequent recipient (1-step forward) records for all products and their inputs. While segments of the food industry are investigating ways to streamline product tracing, most companies report that integrating such services into their existing processes and systems would be difficult and costly.

To address the collective issues in developing an effective product traceability system, IFT and its panel of experts determined that the food supply chain needs clear objectives for traceability. Once set, industry should have the ability to determine ways to reach those objectives appropriately. Ideally, a product traceability system must be simple, user-friendly, and globally accepted. To that end, IFT made the following determinations to improve the timeliness and accuracy of traceability. Each supply chain partner must be able to do the following:

  • Define and identify critical tracking events (CTEs);
  • Record standardized key data elements for each CTE that link incoming and outgoing products, regardless of whether a product is transformed (internal traceability) or changes physical location (external traceability);
  • Provide key data elements in electronic format for each CTE within 24 hours of an FDA request;
  • Standardize expression of key data elements; and
  • Educate staff about CTEs and key data.
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