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January 6, 2015

Traceability: Important or Indispensable?

During the International Association for Food Protection (IAFP) Conference in Indiana back in August of 2014, the theme of the session dedicated to food traceability was: Traceability is important for food safety and indispensable for food defense.  Still questions remain: Why should you care about traceability when there are more pressing issues?  Is the difference between a recall program and traceability understood in your company?  Is it time for your company to review where it stands on traceability?

In a recent webinar hosted by the Western Growers Science & Technology Division, more than half of the participants taking a survey during the webinar confirmed they are part of the Produce Traceability Initiative (PTI).  Although we cannot draw any conclusions from this survey question, we can say many producers are already working toward having a traceability system in place.  In the produce sector, traceability refers to the ability to trace the movement of a particular produce item back and forward in the supply chain.  As mentioned by Dr. Jennifer McEntire of The Acheson Group during her webinar presentation, “trace back usually precedes a recall in the supply chain.”  Therefore, when a company conducts a recall it is basically exercising the trace forward component of traceability.  Our food supply chain is very complex, and therefore, following records back or forward can be extremely difficult.

Food regulators experience a very challenging task when it comes to trace back.  Their main priority is to protect the public health and act as soon as possible once an illness is associated with food and an outbreak is taking place.  However, in some cases, inaccurate actions have caused negative impacts on companies implicated prematurely in situations like this.  Because of the complexity of the food supply chain, it is a challenge to accurately identify which particular food item is implicated in an outbreak.  These situations can lead to economic damages and reputation issues hard to bear.  What we don’t often consider is how much time could be saved and how actions could be more accurate if everyone in the supply chain would adopt systems to trace products back and forward in the supply chain that allow easy data synchronization and enhanced communication.  Besides the public health benefit, regulators and companies could also benefit from this: regulators by being able to take more timely/accurate actions and companies by being able to minimize reputation and economic impacts.  There is no question, it would be easier and faster to rule out or rule in a company.  Traceability is important for food safety reasons!

The potential impact of intentional food adulteration to cause public health harm and economic disruption would be more extreme than what we have seen as a result of an unintentional event (most of the outbreaks we have experienced in the United States).  We can clearly see why a good traceability system is indispensable for food defense (to protect food from intentional adulteration).  The Federal Bureau of Investigation records indicate that agriculture and food production are tempting targets of terrorists for potential threats to the United States.  This makes sense from an economical and logistical point of view; the complexity of our supply chain can offer a perfect mechanism to introduce an adulterant in our food without incurring a huge cost.  The impacts of these acts could be unbearable and this confirms why traceability is indispensible for food defense and why everyone in the supply chain plays a key role in supporting a good traceability system.

So, what can you do about it?  What about starting with these questions:  Where does your company stand on traceability, and where do you want to go?

Perhaps it is time to think proactively about this (if you haven’t already done so), even though government regulations are not expected anytime soon, probably for several years.  Perhaps it is time to conduct an internal review of current procurement and distribution processes, recordkeeping procedures/systems and a trace back/trace forward exercise. If you are able to quickly and accurately identify where all your products/ingredients (if any) came from and where they went, you are on the right path.  Also, if you have not, it is time to consider the benefits of traceability for marketing or branding opportunities, increasing inventory control and efficiencies in general.

Traceability is important for food safety, indispensable for food defense and can be beneficial for your company.

Contact Sonia Salas at [email protected] or visit our Science & Technology blog for any comments, questions or suggestions on this topic at