Traceability in Food Systems: Frequently Asked Questions

1. What is the purpose of IFT’s Global Food Traceability Center (GFTC)?

The primary purpose of the Global Food Traceability Center (GFTC) is to strengthen the performance of the agriculture and food industry. It seeks to carry out this mission 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.

2. What is traceability?

According to Olsen and Borit 2012, “traceability is the ability to access any or all information relating to that which is under consideration, throughout its entire lifecycle, by means of recorded identifications.” Food traceability began very early in human 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.

3. Why should I care about traceability?

Traceability is necessary for a variety of reasons from multiple stakeholder perspectives.
  • Regulatory agencies—traceability provides the key link between an outbreak investigation, the epidemiology of the outbreak and the initiation of a recall.
  • Consumers—traceability is critical for enabling trust and transparency with the private sector.
  • Food industry—traceability provides better risk management, improved operational efficiencies and increased market access across the entire supply chain.

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

The growing need for food traceability originates from two basic types of drivers: public good and commercial benefit.

Public good drivers:

  • Reduce food contamination/adulteration
  • Lower the incidence and impact of foodborne illnesses.
  • Strengthen the ability to respond to emergencies.

Proven commercial benefits:

  • Improved efficiency and effectiveness of the supply chain (reducing working capital and raising cash flow).
  • Gain access to new mark
  • Strengthen brand equity (verifying 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.

5. Is traceability mainly used for food recalls?

Not necessarily, 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.

6. How many traceability systems exist today?

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. End-to-end (farm-to-fork) traceability systems are a recent development. They are rare and typically serve a specific sector (such as poultry in Denmark, salmon in Norway, beef in Japan).

7. What are the specific data elements required for successful traceability?

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.
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)?

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

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.

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

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.

10. Which countries are advanced in food traceability?

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.

11. How does product tracing and the recommendations put forth in the 2013 IFT report to the FDA, Pilot Projects for Improving Product Tracing along the Food Supply System - Final Report (PDF), benefit consumers?

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.

12. 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?

Currently, the food industry keeps records but uses inconsistent 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.

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.

13. How can electronic product tracing information be kept secure? Will companies and others know what food products I purchase?

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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