There are many reasons for tracing a food product's components back to their source. The most important, of course, is to find the source of a food safety problem and to locate and retrieve all of the affected product as quickly as possible.

Cattle (and other farm animals) are identified from birth on by USDA-approved tags bearing an animal identification number unique to each animal, as part of USDA’s National Animal Identification System that helps producers and animal health officials respond quickly and effectively to events affecting animal health in the U.S.

Many organizations have been actively developing traceability guidelines, initially to trace diseased animals back to their source, as in the cases of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, and a number of countries have required and implemented traceability programs.

U.S. Activities
Both the U.S. Dept of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration have been active regarding traceability.

• USDA. In 2004, researchers at USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS) investigated the amount, type, and adequacy of traceability systems in the United States, focusing on the fresh produce, grains/oilseeds, and cattle/beef sectors, and issued a report, "Traceability in the U.S. Food Supply: Economic Theory and Industry Studies" ( The report contained no concrete policy recommendations but was intended to set the tone for discussion and present the facts to policy makers. ERS intends to readdress the topic in the near future.

Also in 2004, USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) announced the implementation of the National Animal Identification System (NAIS), a standardized information system that helps producers and animal health officials respond quickly and effectively to events affecting animal health in the U.S. According to David A. Wiklund ([email protected]), Project Manager, Software Development at NAIS, the implementation has three phases.

The first phase is to encourage U.S. farmers and ranchers to register their premises. To date, more than 458,000 premises have been registered. The second phase consists of assigning a 15-digit animal identification number (AIN) unique to each farm animal (pets are not included in NAIS). These numbers are linked to the premises of origin and begin with the number "840," the official country code for the U.S. Also, in some cases where groups of animals move through the production cycle together, a Group Identification Number (GIN) is assigned to the group of animals and individual tags are not used. The Web-based Animal Identification Numbering Management System is used to track the manufacture and issuance of these numbers. Wiklund said that when an animal is born, it gets tagged with a tag bearing its AIN. Various types of USDA-approved tags can be used, such as panel tags and RFID tags; a list of approved manufacturers is available at

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The third phase involves collecting, via the Animal Trace Processing System, information from companies that store and maintain animal trace data for the farmers and ranchers. NAIS has agreements with these Animal Trace Database providers (ATDs) to provide private data to aid an investigation when any of the following occur: a positive foreign animal disease is found; a program-managed disease, such as brucellosis or bovine tuberculosis, is found; or the Secretary of Agriculture declares an emergency. The data required to be sent to NAIS are the AIN, the premises number, the date of the event, and the type of event, e.g., tagging, move in, move out. Optional data can also be sent. A list of approved ATDs is available at The long-term goal of the program, Wiklund said, is to be able to trace back a suspect or diseased animal to its source within 48 hours. Recently, some investigations of bovine tuberculosis have taken as long as 199 days.

In September 2007, USDA's Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service (CRSEES) issued a report, "Blueprint for USDA Efforts in Agricultural Animal Genomics 2008–2017" ( Among the points made in the document is that besides leading to improvements in product quality, in the near future, genome-enabled technologies will be used to trace animals and animal products throughout the food production chain, resulting in enhanced biosecurity as well as increased food safety and consumer confidence.

In December 2007, APHIS published for public comment a draft of a "Business Plan for Advancing Animal Disease Traceability" ( The plan supports the NAIS long-term goal of 48-hr traceback and sets priorities, such as getting 70% of the animals in a species identified and traceable to the premises of origin. APHIS expects to have issued a final version by the time this article appears.

APHIS is also drafting proposed regulations that would require the first point of import and the first point of export to be registered premises. This will be a significant step in improving traceability. For more information or for a related fact sheet, "The Facts About Traceability," visit

• FDA. As directed by the Bioterrorism Act of 2002, the FDA in late 2004 issued regulations requiring persons (excluding farms, restaurants, and certain others) who manufacture, process, pack, transport, distribute, receive, hold, or import food to keep for up to two years records that identify the immediate previous sources and immediate subsequent recipients of food, including its packaging (

In addition, in November 2007, the Food and Drug Administration introduced a comprehensive initiative designed to better protect the nation's food supply. The Food Protection Plan ( focuses FDA's efforts to prevent problems before they start, employs risk-based interventions to ensure that preventive approaches are effective, and provides for a rapid response when contaminated food or feed are detected or when there is harm to humans or animals. One of the response action steps is to work with stakeholders to implement a more effective trace-back process, using technologies to rapidly and precisely track the origin and destination of contaminated foods, feed, and ingredients.

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International Activities
Various organizations around the world have also been active in this area. Here are some of them.

• GS1. This not-for-profit organization based in Belgium establishes and implements global identification and electronic commerce standards to improve the supply chain. It has more than 100 country "Member Organizations," of which GS1 US, headquartered in Lawrenceville, N.J., is the U.S. organization. GS1 US (formerly the Uniform Code Council) is the organization that drove adoption of the barcode used on consumer products and for supply chain applications globally. In February 2006, GS1 issued Global Traceability Standard guidelines ( to create one communications language for the entire supply chain—from suppliers to retailers to consumers—for packaged and fresh foods.

The key to traceability, according to Chris Lemmond ([email protected]), Director, Strategy & Innovation at GS1 US, is to standardize the tracing process, as well as the identification of objects (e.g., food ingredients and transport units) and locations (e.g., field, warehouse, etc.) within the supply chain. Digitizing objects and locations and setting up standard methods to capture and share information provides traceability efficiency and effectiveness.

For GS1 US, there are three important identifiers. The Global Trade Item Number (GTIN) is typically a 12- to 14-digit number and is what is on a standard barcode of a consumer item or case pack. The Serialized Shipping Container Code (SSCC) is an 18-digit number typically used to identify a specific pallet of product. And the Global Location Number (GLN) is a 13-digit number that identifies physical locations as well as legal entities.

GS1 US's "U Connect 08" conference, "Finding New Ways of Working Together," June 9–12, 2008, in Dallas, Tex., scheduled numerous sessions relating to e-commerce, including tracking, tracing, and recalls, as well as global supply chain efficiency, GS1 system standards updates, and others. More information is available at

• Can-Trace. Canada's traceability initiative, Can-Trace ( — involving industry, government, standards organizations, and consumers—has issued traceability standards based on the GS1 system for all food products sold in Canada. It issued Version 2.0 of its Canadian Food Traceability Data Standard in May 2006.

• CIES. The European Union has required implementation of traceability for all operators in the food chain since January 2005. To guide those businesses, CIES–The Food Business Forum, based in France, issued guidelines titled "Implementing Traceability in the Food Chain" (

• Codex Alimentarius Commission. The Codex Alimentarius Commission in 2006 issued its "Principles for Traceability/Product Tracing as a Tool within a Food Inspection and Certification System" (

• IDF. In April 2007, the International Dairy Federation issued "IDF Guiding Principles for Traceability/Product Tracing," in the dairy production chain (

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• OIE. In May 2007, OIE, the World Organization for Animal Health (, based in France, issued official standards for animal identification and traceability. OIE said that new technologies in animal production, such as animal cloning and transgenic animals, will create a need for additional arrangements to trace animals. New technologies, such as DNA identification, may offer solutions for tracing every individual animal and animal product derived from these novel production methods through to the retail level.

• ISO. In July 2007, the International Standards Organization issued ISO 22005 as the latest international standard for the food and beverage industry. It presents general principles and basic requirements for designing and implementing a traceability system for a processor's supply chain. Processors who achieve certification under the new standard will be required to have systems in place to trace the flow of feed, food, ingredients, and packaging into and out of their plants. They must also be able to identify the necessary documentation and tracking for each stage of production, ensure adequate coordination between the parties involved, and require that each party be informed of at least his direct suppliers and clients.

More Traceability Activities
In October 2006, the Produce Marketing Association (PMA) and the Canadian Produce Marketing Association (CPMA) published "Fresh Produce Traceability, A Guide to Implementation" (

In November 2007, PMA, CPMA, and United Fresh Produce Association (UFPA) formed a joint Produce Traceability Initiative to drive adoption of traceability best practices throughout the produce supply chain. In January 2008, representatives from more than 35 food retailers, foodservice entities, and produce growers and 8 trade associations met as a part of the initiative to begin working on an action plan for produce traceability. Minutes of their meetings are available at

Also in 2007, a coalition of fresh food associations—PMA, National Cattlemen's Beef Association, National Chicken Council, International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association, Food Marketing Institute, American Lamb Board, National Pork Board, National Fisheries Institute, and National Turkey Federation—and GS1 US published a report, "Industry Roadmap: Building the Fresh Foods Supply Chain of the Future." The report and related documents are available at

In October 2007, the Grocery Manufacturers/Food Products Assn. (GMA/FPA) held a workshop, "Sourcing Products in a Global Market: Food Supplier Best Practices," that included, among other related topics, technology for improved traceability. The organization intends to publish a Suppliers Best Practices Guidebook in 2008.

In June 2007, IBM's Institute for Business Value issued a perspective called "Establishing Trust through Traceability." The perspective focused on how the consumer goods industry can leverage traceability to not only ensure product safety but also regain the trust of consumers and strengthen their brands. The perspective is available at

Improving Quality
According to David Miller ([email protected]), President of Operations Technologies, Greenville, S.C., a provider of inventory and manufacturing management software solutions, government regulations, such as the FDA 306 Bioterrorism rule, as well as customer-driven international standards such as the Global Food Safety Initiative, are forcing manufacturers to collect more and more data and to respond to a crisis in shorter time frames and to isolate the damage to as fine a point as possible.

If a particular customer's product is bad, he said, it's important to know the lot number, what ingredients were used, what other products also received those ingredients, and who received the products they were used in. The vendor's lot number is not enough, he said. We have to know the supply chain path that the ingredients went through. We need to obtain the data quickly and completely and be specific, he added. It shouldn't take more than seconds to obtain the data and pinpoint the suspect product, and it shouldn't include product that is not suspect.

Another point, he said, is that people tend to think of traceability as a cost. But if we can tie it in with HACCP data and process lot data, we can tell which lots were really good and can figure out which vendors are yielding the best ingredients. It's an excellent tool for improving quality and cutting costs.

by Neil H. Mermelstein,
a Fellow of IFT,
is Editor Emeritus of Food Technology 
[email protected]