Traceability in Food Systems: Frequently Asked Questions

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Q.Why IFT is uniquely positioned to launch this center?

A.IFT is well positioned to facilitate the dialogue and collaboration amongst the Center’s partners and investors to achieve its mission. IFT has the experience to bring together diverse and divergent interests and perspectives to build partnerships.  IFT has a reputation for informed and practical research and has been a visible leader in food traceability since 2008. The GFTC will draw on IFT’s team of scientific experts, as well as on external resources through partnerships with organizations and key individuals. 

Q.Why did IFT get involved?

A.IFT has been a visible leader in food traceability since 2008.  In 2009, IFT delivered a key report to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on the status of food product tracing, and provided guidance on improvements and recommendations on future work. The industry views IFT as an unbiased visionary capable of managing conflicting and divergent viewpoints by focusing on science and not endorsing one particular solution.

IFT also conducted three Traceability Summits in 2011 to bring together leading minds in the industry to tackle the challenges related to traceability.  These summits were a part of the Traceability Improvement Initiative (TII) launched by IFT in summer 2011 with seed funding support from BASF Chemical Company, Underwriters Laboratories, and National Fisheries Institute Seafood Industry Research Fund. 

Q.What is the purpose of the GFTC?

A.The primary purpose of the Global Food Traceability Center (GFTC) is to strengthen the performance of the agriculture and food industry.  It will do this by raising understanding of the value and importance of tracking and tracing of food, and by fostering collaborative research and communications that provide traceability tools to raise the capabilities of agri-food businesses.  It will also act as a focal point to articulate the importance of being proactive and foresighted with regards to food traceability and safety.

Q.What is GFTC's mandate?

A.The GFTC Vision is “To become the global resource and authoritative voice on food traceability.” 

Its Mission is “To serve all aspects of the food system - from agriculture to the consumer - by generating knowledge in research gaps, delivering applied research, objective advice and practical expertise about data collaboration and food product traceability for private benefit and public good.” 

To achieve this, the GFTC has organized four primary business areas, each with strategies and priorities to deliver value.  The four business platforms are: Research; Protocols & Standards; Education & Training; and Technology Transfer. 

Q.What is the benefit of having a single, recognized center traceability?

A.Until now there has been no go-to resource and authoritative voice on food traceability.  Industry, businesses and governments all pursue their own interests regarding food traceability with little collaboration. The result is a broad array of initiatives, programs, projects and systems that may or may not directly improve the food industry’s overall capabilities.

The intention of the GFTC is not to create sameness; it has a goal to improve the product tracing capabilities of industry and government with regards to foodborne outbreaks and emergency management as well as to build and expand services and solutions that will increase the benefits of traceability and collaboration amongst participants in the food system (farm/catch to fork).

Q.Which major agri-food companies are backing GFTC?

A.Current Founding Sponsors and Contributing Partners include: Cargill Inc., Eurofins Labs, FMI Foundation, Global Cold Chain Alliance, GS1 US, International Association for Food Protection, Intertek Group, Lyngsoe Systems, Mars Inc., National Center for Food Protection and Defense, National Fisheries Institute’s Seafood Industry Research Fund, PepsiCo, Produce Marketing Association, University of Guelph, Walmart, and Wegmans Food Markets.  Others are considering their interest in joining with us.

An Advisory Council has been constituted for the Center based on the support of its Founding Sponsors, Contributing Partners, and recognized traceability leaders.  The Center will work with these and other partners and maximize use of available infrastructure to offer physical and virtual facilities and services.

Q.What can the food industry do to get onboard with and to support the GFTC?

A.There are numerous ways for food system stakeholders to become involved in the GFTC. One simple step is to become a member of the Institute of Food Technologists.  IFT is an international professional society with over 18,000 members worldwide in about 100 countries.  As a member of IFT, people have access to IFT’s entire array of food science research and information.

Industry associations and businesses in the food industry who want to be more closely linked with the GFTC can inquire about sponsorship or request the center’s research, technical assistance, and advisory services. Government and academic institutions are also welcome; we publish research and policy opinions regarding traceability, and can be called upon for food traceability training, speeches and presentations.

Q.How will the GFTC influence public policy?

A.The Center is not an advocacy group but will work with businesses, industry, academia and government agencies to more proactively address food traceability. There is a growing public/consumer consensus that industry and government must address the transparency about and safety of the food we eat.

IFT has the experience and trusted advisor status to bring together diverse and divergent interests and perspectives to facilitate dialogue on policies that may cut cross the entire food system. By providing this necessary ‘safe shelter’ for frank and open dialogue, public policy concerning traceability can become more frankly addressed and better aligned with the capabilities of those who must regulate the industry, and those who deliver food to people.

Q.Why do we need to track food ingredients and the foods made from them?

A. The growing need for food traceability originates from two basic types of drivers: public good and commercial benefit.  Public good drivers usually are considered first because they are quite visible. They include reducing food contamination/adulteration, lowering the incidence and impact of foodborne illnesses, and strengthening the ability to respond to emergencies.

Proven business benefits flow from improving the efficiency and effectiveness of the supply chain (reducing working capital and raising cash flow), gaining access to new markets and consumers (increasing market share), and strengthening brand equity (verfying the provenance of a product claim or health benefit).

While the public good from traceability tends to command attention, it is the commercial value of traceability that will sustain it. In the 1980’s the automotive industry undertook a massive reengineering of its supply chain that was initially driven by demands for safer vehicles. However, it was the economic benefits of streamlining the supply chain that now dominates that effort.

Traceability delivers benefits: it unlocks the economic value of collaborative supply chains (sometimes called value chains), and it enables industry and authorities to track and trace products in that chain when things go wrong and quick action is required.

Q.When was food traceability first developed? What makes traceability possible?

A.Food traceability began well before recorded history with the earliest forms of identification on animals being tattoos, brands, and colored staining.  Only in the last fifty years or so have food companies more routinely relied on product identification codes and electronic systems. 

Traceability relies on information to follow the path of a food product through the various stages of production, distribution, and sale. There are two kinds of information needed: Key Data Elements (KDEs) and Critical Tracking Events (CTEs). 
Within the Key Data Elements there are 3 kinds of types of data required: What is the product (identification)?  Where is it (premises or location)? When did it move (date or time identification)? 

Regarding Critical Tracking Events, it is question of understanding where in the chain of events along the food system you must collect that data. This may be different for each kind of supply chain and therein lays the complexity that sometimes accompanies attempts to implement traceability.

Q.How many traceability systems exist today?

A.There are literally hundreds if not thousands of information management systems that claim to have traceability functions. Many are focused at an individual company’s need and are implemented for business management reasons that may or may not include traceability. So called end-to-end (farm-to-fork) traceability systems are rare and a more recent development.  Where they exist, they typically serve a specific sector (such as poultry in Denmark, salmon in Norway, beef in Japan).

Q.What's the state of the art today?

A.Most food businesses recognize the importance of effective information management. Traceability for these companies is just a part of their daily operations and is not separate from their quality or food safety management processes. 

What is relative new is the idea of data collaboration with partners for the purpose of generating business value for all parties. This kind of collaboration requires a level of transparency that has not typically existed in the food industry. It requires a company to look at itself from the outside and consider its business as a part of a much larger chain of events.

With the continuing evolution in information technology (IT), companies can now efficiently share commercial data without the requirement of having the same system or investing in expensive third party solutions and electronic data exchange software.

Q.What are the specific data elements that need to be generated, verified, and transmitted?

A.Although there is broad agreement from major consumer goods companies on need for improved traceability and transparency, there is only limited and preliminary agreement on specific data demands to be made by the system. The minimum data elements are modest.

Q.How must data requirements be adjusted to mesh with multi-product traceability systems?

A.Defining these data needs are the key to efficiency and interoperability; otherwise the production base cannot respond, dynamic supply and competition will be inhibited, and regulations inconsistent (essentially the current state). Interoperability is possible only when the companies that wish to collaborate seamlessly join together in a dialogue and develop common definitions of their requirements and agree upon how the information will be shared.

Q.How must data requirements be adjusted to meet multiple local realities and consumer/retailer demands?

A.The proposal by European Union Commissioner Maria Damanaki for a “universal catch certificate” is emblematic of the need for a global approach to basic fisheries data requirements as a prerequisite to commerce and law enforcement.

Traceability is the tool to inform the value chain about what is happening.  The tool will reflect the localized requirements for commercial purposes; however there needs to be harmonized data requirements that can be used across the globe for public welfare and animal/plant health purposes. Thus, the need for collaboration and dialogue about requirements and data sharing protocols.

Q.What does product tracing mean for the food industry and why is it important?

A.Product tracing is the ability to capture and record vital information at every step in the food supply chain in order to track ingredients and products back to the point of harvest/production and forward to the point of sale/service.

Product tracing provides a documented history of food ingredients and products and allows tracing and verification in the event of a foodborne illness or animal disease outbreak to determine the origination and destination of ingredients and products. Traceability is a tool that enables a host of commercial benefits that include increased market share, lower costs, and reduced waste in the food system.

Q.Why do we need a globally coordinated system for traceability and transparency?

A.Securing food is critical to personal health and security, poverty alleviation, and national viability.  Linking markets to sustainable and legal production is important.  Without reliable information from the food system, sustainability cannot be secured.
Other key benefits of traceability will be:

  • increased business efficiency (supply chain management and cash flow);
  • Increased coherence / harmonization of national regulatory schemes (lower cost);
  • increased investment in monitoring, control, and surveillance (market access);
  • equitable distribution of benefits along the food system (transparency = trust).

The technology is available; the basic format for industry standards is in place; the challenge is to convert hearts and minds, and to motivate behavior (commercial, political, social, legal) to create alignment and drive adoption.

Q.Which countries are leaders in food traceability?

A.The Global Food Traceability Center has undertaken two projects to help answer this question.  One project will deliver a regulatory viewpoint of global food traceability – providing information about countries that have legal requirements.  The other project will provide a guidance document concerning industry best practices regarding traceability and data transparency.

Both projects will deliver their findings this year. However, traceability experts would agree that Japan is a leader in food traceability, as are some countries in the European Union. North and South American nations are perceived as lagging others on food traceability.

Q.How do product tracing and the recommendations put forth in the 2013 FDA report benefit consumers?

A.During an outbreak of a foodborne illness, state public health investigators and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) first try to determine the food that is causing illness. Then, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) must trace the contaminated product back to the source of production and find the point of contamination.

Accurate and efficient recordkeeping of the recommended data elements required for product tracing can enable FDA to identify the specific plant or country of origin. The trace-back allows FDA and food producers to identify more precisely the source of contamination, thereby improving production practices and preventing future contamination. Additionally, tracking the product forward may allow for its removal from the marketplace so that people don’t consume it and become ill. Improved product tracing can reduce the time required for an efficient trace and may better protect public health, help reduce the economic hardship relevant industries face, and maintain consumer confidence in the U.S. food supply.

Q.What impact would these recommendations have on the food industry, and how do they differ from what the food industry is currently doing in this area?

A.Currently, the food industry keeps records but uses dissimilar formats and terms. The report recommends implementing certain key data elements using agreed upon standardized formats. The recommendations do not exclude any segments of the food industry from maintaining this information, and under current laws, food systems such as farms and restaurants are not required to keep records.

The report recommends that every company maintain records, be able to provide them in an electronic format, and make product tracing a part of the audit process. Companies would need to be able to link the information they receive to the items they ship. Improved product tracing can reduce the time companies take to trace ingredients or products backward and forward and aid FDA in faster, more accurate investigations.

Q.What impact do the FDA report recommendations have on current product tracing regulations and the regulatory agencies that enforce them?

A.IFT believes these recommendations can help improve tracing of food products. Improving FDA’s ability to trace a contaminated product back to the source of production would allow the agency to conduct more rapid, accurate investigations. Current laws limit the types of information that are required to be kept by food companies, and limit the ways in which FDA can access these records.

Q.Does this mean that traceability is mainly about food recalls?

A.Having information that permits rapid trace-back and track-forward capabilities is important.  However, traceability is a tool that opens up a number of commercial opportunities and benefits.  Traceability is used to verify the origins or provenance of a food product – this could be for any number of characteristics. Local foods, halal, organic, and other attributes are confirmed only by having reliable traceability.  Other benefits include more streamlined supply chain and materials management, which leads to lower working capital needs and reduced costs. Traceability also reduces business risk and the costs of managing a recall should one occur.

Q.How is electronic product tracing information kept secure?  Will companies and others know what food products I purchase?

A.There are many means for food companies and regulatory agencies to ensure security of electronic data and proprietary information. Accurate receiving records will be kept at foodservice and retail locations, but documentation of end-purchasers (i.e., consumers) will not be maintained, as it would be very difficult to record each and every consumer purchase.

While customer loyalty programs may enable retailers to inform their customers of food recalls, IFT does not suggest a way to trace what products consumers purchase or consume.

Q.Do the FDA report recommendations allow for me to know where my food came from?

A.Some companies are using technologies and systems that enable consumers to find out how and where a food was made and sometimes who made it. However, for product tracing, all the steps between production and sale are important.

Because the recommendations propose tracking at the case level and not the item level, there would not be any additional information on the package that would enable consumers to know from where their food came.



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