Marianne Gillette

The U.S. is the largest producer of food and agriculture products in the world! Food and agriculture is the single largest business in the United States—an estimated $1.2 trillion business with more than $55 billion in agricultural exports each year. However, it is no surprise that consumer confidence in this business has decreased because of highly publicized food scares and product recalls.

Today, food traceability is being closely examined… and rightly so. While product traceability has sometimes been a contentious issue in the food and beverage industry, recent and very public supply chain incidents have aligned all parties in proactive efforts to improve controls.

Taking into consideration the history of food safety events, the impact on public health, and the resulting decrease in consumer confidence of the food supply, your IFT undertook an important study on traceability (product tracing) in food systems. IFT, as part of a five-year contract with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, was asked to evaluate traceability and traceback systems in the food and feed supply chains.

We conducted an in-depth review of industry practices and various processing or engineering technologies used to track the movement of food products, forward through the supply chain as well as back to the original  sources. We also examined the costs associated with the identified product tracing systems and technologies and provided recommendations. The analysis included a review of diverse product tracing methods, practices in non-food industries, and standards and regulations pertaining to traceability worldwide.

The study, released this month by IFT and the FDA, recommends guidelines designed to establish a comprehensive product tracing system that tracks the movement of food products the most efficiently from farm to point of sale or service. To conduct this comprehensive study, IFT assembled a seven-member “core expert panel” consisting of an agricultural economist, an epidemiologist, a representative from a nonprofit, international standards organization, a produce provider, a food industry safety and recall specialist, a food microbiologist, and IFT’s senior science advisor.

The panel collected information from 58 food companies involved in produce, packaged foods, processed ingredients, distribution, foodservice, retail, and animal feed. Nearly 60 conference calls were conducted with a number of members from each industry segment, along with additional interviews with traceability solution providers, trade associations, and others. IFT spoke to eight packaged foods companies, four ingredient companies, four animal feed representatives, 22 members of the produce industry, three non-produce distributors, seven representatives of the retail segment, and 10 representatives of the foodservice segment.

The experts examined several non-food industries to determine if their processes could be replicated in food systems. Our panel’s findings revealed that none of the non-food industries mirrors ours, however, we can learn from their experiences.

Key recommendations from IFT and the expert panel include: creation of a standard list of key data or information to be collected; standardization of formats for expressing the information; identification of the points along the supply chain, internally and between partners, where information needs to be captured; comprehensive record keeping that allows the linking of information both internally and with partners; use of electronic systems for data transfer; inclusion of traceability as a requirement within audits; and required training and education on what compliance entails.

The report also captured information on international standards for product tracing through organizations including the Codex Alimentarius Commission, the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE), IS O, and GS1. Regulations and activities were highlighted within the report in specific regions or countries including Asia, the Eastern Mediterranean, Africa, Europe, the Western Pacific, and North America.

A key takeaway from discussions with the food companies indicated that all of those participating in the study acknowledged the importance of an effective (rapid and precise) product tracing system in safeguarding their supply chain. They understand that public health relies on it. Our food system is complex. Vast networks of contributors from around the globe are handling an even wider variety of products. We have the expertise, resources, and drive to provide steadfast guidance and scientific support to make a difference wherever needed. Our continued focus on this issue is essential to the livelihood of our profession.

Please visit traceability to view the study in its entirety and learn more about our expert panel.

by Marianne Gillette
IFT President, 2009–2010 
Vice President of Technical Competencies and Platforms, McCormick & Co. Inc., Hunt Valley, Md.
[email protected]