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An expert look at food traceability and safety

Soma Somasundaram, chief technology officer, president of products at Infor, sat down with Food & Beverage Industry News for a Q&A about the current state of food traceability and food safety technology.

Q: What is the current state of food traceability and food safety technology?

It differs a lot by company. Of course, most food companies have some kind of food safety certificate and are being audited, but many are still documenting quality test results on paper or in separate systems.

In the case of a food safety incident, and when time is of the essence, these organisations do not have the information at their fingertips to quickly determine the root cause.

This results in less precise recalls where, for instance, a whole day of production needs to be pulled instead of a specific batch or set of pallets. In quite a few situations, it was not the issue itself that hurt the company but the inability to act quickly and precisely.

Adding to the complexity, the root cause to an incident can originate with a supplier upstream in the supply chain.

We have seen several food safety incidents which took a lot of time until the track and trace was done through the whole supply chain. Initially, some products were recalled that were perfectly fine, while problematic products were still on the shelves in the supermarkets.

Q: How, and why, is food traceability and safety important to the growth of the food and beverage industry?  

Traceability is the foundation to protect the health of consumers, which is, of course, priority number one. It is also important because recalls are very costly, in both direct cost and indirectly in the potential damage to the brand.

Another benefit of traceability is that it is the foundation for transparency.

A growing number of consumers want more provenance information about the products that they buy.

This is becoming even more important with the increasing number of regulations being introduced for sustainability. Food companies need to show the evidence of their sustainability, organic and other claims.

Q: What are some of the proactive approaches industry stakeholders should be taking to improve on food traceability, and safety?

Regulators are putting laws into effect. For instance, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced FSMA 204, which mandates that food and beverage companies in certain food categories pass on track-and-trace details through the supply chain all the way to the grocery stores.

This will make track and trace faster. We believe that this can be done only by using digital systems. If not, companies will need to add a lot of administrative overhead, and they still cannot guarantee that the traceability is without broken links and missing information.

Digital solutions are doing more than just visualising the trace lines and doing recalls.

They also validate consistency and completeness of the traceability, for instance, by checking if all ingredients are being booked in quantities that match with the manufactured quantity of product.

Q: Can you please give some detail around the negative impacts producers and manufacturers face when a recall is made on one of their products?

A: Fortunately, many incidents are reported, for instance, to the Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF) in Europe, FDA in the United States, or Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) in Australia, without having to do a recall.

But recalls can be a disaster for food and beverage manufacturers – with some companies having had to shut down factories for months.

Q: What are some of the benefits you’ve seen companies achieve by adopting newer and more innovative solutions around food traceability? And what are some of the challenges faced in adopting new technologies and solutions?

An advantage of having a digital traceability system is that you can visualise the weaknesses in the production and flow of goods.

Based on that, you can change processes, for instance, by splitting ingredient lots into sub lots or changing how materials are moved to the production lines.

A prerequisite is to capture the movement of goods and production in a digital way. Barcode scanning is a must, and a growing number of companies are implementing Manufacturing Execution Systems (MES).

Q: What are the risks stakeholders face by not adopting new technologies and solutions?

They will face an increasing administrative overhead because people must maintain information on paper or in separate applications such as spreadsheets.

At some point, there will be a food safety issue.

They will put their customers’ health at risk by not being able to act quickly in addressing the root cause nor executing the recall efficiently and precisely.

The cost of this can be significant and a brand’s reputation can be damaged for a long time.

Q: What challenges do stakeholders in the food and beverage industry face by not implementing new and innovative traceability technology?

This is not only a food and beverage manufacturer’s problem, but it also impacts the reputation of everyone in the supply chain, from farm to fork.

We think that the coming years will increasingly focus on multi-enterprise tracking and tracing using blockchain technology.

New regulations such as FSMA 204 and sustainability are driving the industry in that direction.

Q: Technology, both software and hardware, continues to evolve at a rapid rate. Is there a risk of adopting a new technology now only for it to be made obsolete in the near future by more innovation? And is this a concern you hear?

It all starts with organising the processes within the organisation.

Implementation of solid Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP), MES and barcode scanning solutions will future-proof the business.

The next step is solving the problem of exchanging traceability information through the supply chain. GS1 first published its Global Traceability Standard years ago, so the best practice is known. Blockchain technology is now mature enough, as well. With regulation becoming more stringent, adoption will come.

Q: How does better traceability impact on the supply chain?

It will make the supply chain more responsive. Companies can more quickly source new ingredients, in response to food safety incidents. It will also make inventory management more accurate.

Q: How can traceability help reduce the risk of recall or limit its impact?

Recalls will be more targeted and smaller. Also, there is a lot more quality data at hand, so it is much easier to determine what went wrong.

This is very different than simply putting a whole day of production in quarantine and recalling everything that has been shipped – without knowing what caused the problem and how it can be prevented next time.

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