Organic Farmer

About the Global Food Traceability Center (GFTC) and FAQs

IFT’s Global Food Traceability Center (GFTC) and its partners work together to share knowledge, expertise, applied research, data, and resources to help address global food traceability challenges and opportunities across the supply chain.

What is Traceability?

Traceability is the systematic ability to trace the path of food ingredients and/or finished products throughout their entire lifecycle, using previously captured and stored records. These records catalogue key data elements (KDEs) at critical tracking events (CTEs).

The Benefits of Food Traceability

Food traceability is becoming a must-have in the industry to mitigate and manage risk around food safety recalls. As it becomes more widespread, industry leaders are discovering the additional benefits to traceability:

  • Operational and supply chain efficiency
  • Engendering consumer trust through transparency
  • Reducing food loss and waste
  • Market differentiation
  • Enabling sustainability initiatives (such as carbon footprint or verifying legality)
  • Mitigating food fraud
  • Providing mechanisms to combat human rights violations

For more information, check out the FAQand Glossary.

Food Traceability and Transparency are Responsible Business

As food production and distribution systems become increasingly complex, interdependent, and globalized—businesses, regulators, and consumers need practical solutions to a spectrum of food-related challenges from safety and sustainability to waste to value.

IFT’s GFTC is here to provide the resources needed to help your company reduce risk and give your customers what they want—safe, healthy food. In addition to the free resources you will find on this website, the GFTC’s fee-based services provide the evidence needed to implement traceability in the value chain. 

GFTC services include:

  • Pilot projects
  • Implementation assistance
  • Research
  • Online training and in-person workshops
  • Advisory consultation workshops
  • Solution evaluation & integration

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

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.

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 is the systematic ability to trace the path of food ingredients and/or finished products throughout their entire lifecycle, using previously captured and stored records. These records catalogue key data elements (KDEs) at critical tracking events (CTEs).

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.

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 re-engineering 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.

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.

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).

Although there is broad agreement from major consumer goods companies on the need for improved traceability and transparency, there is a continued and iterative process to refine the standardization of data elements for traceability, of which GFTC is a leading authority.

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).

For chain of custody, there are 3 principal Key Data Element types required:

  • What is the product (identification)?
  • Where is it (premises or location)?
  • When did it move (date or time identification)?

Additional KDEs are collected to address additional traceability use cases, such as food safety or sustainability.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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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