Tracking and tracing foods through the supply chain and the role of blockchain

Part 1- Tracking and Tracing

This is a two-part series of blogs. The first blog will deal with tracking and tracing products through the supply chain, since tracking of products is a prerequisite to blockchain implementation. The second blog will deal with the current status of blockchain, its advantages and the hurdles that need to be overcome.

Drivers of food traceability

As food is transferred from farm to fork, it involves a complex network of participants. The product from an ingredient producer could end up in hundreds or even thousands of different products on the supermarket shelf.

A single ingredient can cause a chain reaction of recalls.  In 2016 Valley Milk Products (VMP) recall of dry milk and dried buttermilk resulted in a subsequent ripple effect of companies that used the VMP products as raw ingredients, affecting over 40 companies. A tertiary recall was generated by companies that used products of the secondary group causing more companies to recall their products.  Food tracking can eliminate this problem.

Food traceability initiatives are being driven by increased regulation and consumer demand for transparency. Ideally foods can be tracked from the farm to the table allowing all producers along the line to monitor the movement of the product. If food is exposed to contaminants at any point along the chain, it’s easier to mitigate the risks and keep food out the hands of the public.

One of the hurdles to food tracking is the lack of standard requirements. Current traceability systems are limited in most cases to ”one step forward and one step back.” Therefore, they do not provide means for reliable and rapid response to trace back data across the food chain.

Some think about the food supply chain as linear: from suppliers of raw agricultural products to producers and processors, through distributors to retailers and finally consumers. However, in reality, the system is very complex with interconnected network of nodes making it look more like an intricate web.

Today companies have recordkeeping systems in place that range from manual to sophisticated electronic-based systems. However, the time has come for global end-to-end universal food traceability. There is a need for a software platform that will track down the necessary information promptly.

Especially larger food companies are embracing global standards to increase efficiencies and build traceability and supply chain visibility into the system. The goal is to increase information availability at every step of the supply chain, allowing food businesses to identify potential hazards and mitigate the risk of compromised product.

Regulatory drivers:

Section 204 of FSMA covers traceability describing the detection and response to food safety problems. The regulation focuses on the response side and not necessarily traceability that continues to be the weak link for the regulators. Many of the statute components that are built into FSMA are based on prior experiences and situations. One big fiasco with traceability was the tomato/pepper issue in 2008 when the commodity was wrongly identified (tomato vs. peppers), and it took close to eight weeks to figure out that it was wrong. Another one was the recent lettuce outbreak that took months to identify the source of contamination. Traceability is essential. The FDA would love for the traceability requirements to be more forceful, but they are limited by what is practical and economically feasible. Looking to the future, it is entirely reasonable that traceability requirements will be strengthened.

Recently (June 13, 2018) the Canadian government published the final Safe Food for Canadian Regulations (SFCR) that will be enforced on January 15, 2019. These regulations mandate an international standard for traceability, requiring that information be kept in the form of electronic or paper records. The traceability requirements of SFCR are similar to the FSMA requirements for a food safety plan, recordkeeping and mandatory recalls.

The current requirements only require one-up, one-down (where did you get the product from, where did you send the product to). The regulatory agency does not have the statutory authority to require companies to use electronic record-keeping. The FDA recognizes that electronic record-keeping is the way of the future and prefers it, but they cannot enforce it. They will let companies keep their records in any format that they decide providing that they can produce the information within 24 hours when requested.

Standardization of traceability

A significant hindrance to effective product tracing is the lack of consistency in data collection in addition to the lack of definitions of key terms such as “lot” or “batch.”

Currently, there are some initiatives (Produce tracing Initiative, Food Service GS1 US Standard Initiative, and GS1 US Retail Grocery Initiative), that are making progress in getting better systems for traceability.

GS1 (a non-profit organization) developed and maintains global standards for business communication; their standards are designed to improve the efficiency, safety, and visibility of supply chains across physical and digital channels. Many companies have committed to the track and trace of products using GS1 Standards.

Many are utilizing GS1-128 barcodes, applied at the case level of produce, enabling to program product identifiers in addition to batch/lot/serial numbers, best-by dates, variable weight information and more. This information can help companies isolate affected product s during a recall.

The Institute of Food Technologists (IFT), with industry support, launched the Global Food Traceability Center (GFTC) in September 2013. The GFTC is an unbiased, knowledgeable, science-based advisor that advances insight and understanding about food traceability, and focuses on addressing issues and challenges of implementing improvements in food traceability while increasing transparency about the food.

They recommended what information to record as the product moves along the supply chain intending that the trial of the product can be followed. The key data elements that should be provided in an electronic form using an approved standardized format. Information recorded should include the location that last handled the product, Incoming lot numbers of product received, product amounts, physical location where cases were shipped Lot number(s) shipped to each location, and date/time.

For producers, processors, re-packers, etc. it should include date/time of manufacturing, all ingredients used in the manufacture of the product, together with their corresponding lot numbers, the source of the ingredients, and when they were received.

According to FoodLogiQ, GS1 Standards are the most widely used supply chain standards in the world, with over 1 million companies using it. The key to the implementation of track and trace is a universal database built with GS1 standards, including all suppliers in the plan, standardized labels and Product IDs, product location, with the ability for quick removal if needed.

Wiltse the CEO of FoodLogiQ said: “The food industry is plagued with data from disparate and disconnected sources,” to become blockchain ready one needs to get their data in a standardized format. It is imperative that all participants in the supply chain use the same language regarding the product’s name and location. This allows for data aggregation when data is transferred back and forth. FoodLogiQ Connect achieves this by using a Global Trade Identification Number (GTIN) to uniquely identify the item name, in addition to a Global Location Number (GLN) that provides its specific location.

Elements of track and trace affords

To take advantage of technologies that are becoming available to the food industry such as smart sensors, IoT, and blockchain, the new tracing system should accommodate smart sensors to monitor products from start to finish, assuring that standards are consistently met. With real-time data transmitted continuously, food that doesn’t meet temperature standards is instantly identified and discarded before it has a chance to cause harm.

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