How much progress has been made in traceability?

The question of how far traceability technology and standards have come in recent years is one that Winston Churchill Trust Fellow and GS1 Australia general manager, Public Policy and Government Engagement, Peter Carter is asking. 

Carter published a report for the Winston Churchill Trust about understanding international best practices and capabilities of Australian national food traceability, and from his extensive research has some interesting observations. 

“A lot of people have been confused about traceability,” he said. 

“Many see it as an objective in its own right – the ability to trace produce through the supply chain.  My research reveals it is really just a capability – a critical capability for many businesses.”

We have all been talking about traceability for years. Since the strawberry and needle incident, which wasn’t the only catalyst but is a good example.” 

The 2018 ‘Australian strawberry contamination’ impacted every strawberry grower in the country.  Produce was removed from retail shelves; harvests were destroyed and export
was stopped.  

The industry did not have a good enough line of sight on where the product was coming from including where farms were located.

Carter said the lack of traceability and ability to rapidly determine exactly the source of contamination resulted in massive avoidable losses to the sector and significant costs to taxpayers with hundreds of police officers dispatched
to investigate.

“A key question I often ask government and industry leaders is, if we had another strawberry incident tomorrow, are we in a better position than we were 5 years ago?” he said. 

“Progress is evident however, after spending millions of dollars and a large number of programs around enhancing traceability, we still don’t have a clear line of sight for things like plant-producing properties.”

Growing up on a farm in Crookwell NSW, Carter says, “traceability it’s not just about knowing where our food comes from” 

“We need better farm location data to address biosecurity risks and also to help rural fire and emergency services more effectively protect valuable farming assets,” said Carter. 

The benefits of traceability are significant, and it is easy to pigeonhole the word to mean one thing or another depending on your stake in the supply chain.  He says, “to one person traceability might mean, better inventory and stock management.  To another, it might mean more regulation and reporting or perhaps better consumer engagement.”

Carter’s research highlights the importance of industry using common methods to exchange information about products, places and parties involved in food supply chains.  

“Let’s just say an issue is detected and a cold chain is broken, and contaminated products have been picked up at the retail point,” he said.  

“How do we trace back to find the source of the problem if we don’t have the ability to ID locations along the way? 

Carter’s research paper assessed traceability in other countries such as Singapore, which scored highest in his grading and informed him of some of the areas that may need closer attention to improve food traceability in Australia. 

“Food traceability is often confused with provenance or knowing where food is from.  That’s important but knowing where or how food was produced is one of many things that traceability makes possible,” he said.

Reflecting on his recent travel Carter said, “I met with many wise people on my travel, and one of them likened traceability to losing weight.  There are so many benefits to shedding those extra kilos – feeling healthier, improved mobility, better sleep, mental health etc.   

“The way I try to present it is that traceability is not the objective, traceability is an essential industry capability – a capacity that allows us to improve our line of sight on where products are in the supply chain, cold chain or otherwise. 

“That capability allows us to unlock a heap of benefits.” 

Carter’s research highlights where progress is being made abroad and calls out the need to raise the level of industry awareness of traceability enablers (foundational capabilities) with a focus on standards,

“There’s nothing like getting out of your country and seeing what’s happening in the rest of the world to put what we do into perspective,” he added. 

“The overwhelming message I picked up in every country I visited was that supply chain transparency and the ability to better manage produce is transforming government and industry policy, worldwide. 

“A cold chain example, if we didn’t have the means to identify the temperature of something how can we make sensible management decisions about freight options and shelf life.” 

Carter said a quote he likes to use helps to simply the messaging he has around the importance of improved food traceability. 

“I often refer to a quote that says, ‘if you can’t measure you can’t manage it’ and I think that works nicely,” he said. 

“It’s not just a plug for data standards, it is a basic process. You don’t have to be an operations manager or accountant to realise the reality of that quote. 

In his report, Carter states that in Australia the National Food Traceability Framework does provide a comprehensive approach to traceability across the supply chain, along with a world-leading traceability when it comes to livestock. 

However, enforcement measures are limited and challenges in data sharing and standardisation across states and sectors still presented some hurdles. 

Despite that, Australia earned a ‘Mature’ rating for its current capability, with Singapore being categorised as the only country from the report with an ‘Advanced’ maturity around traceability. 

“There are not many countries talking about their limitations,” said Carter. 

“Singapore is providing a guiding light with respect to how information can move through supply chains with speed and security to deliver greater value. It’s getting rid of paper and simplifying the process. 

“There is a lot to be learned from their approach.”  

“Such as the Department of Infrastructure supported the National Locations Register, which is critical for supply chain, as are national registries of products,” he said. 

“National registries are important.  We can avoid duplications, general confusion, and ensure product is collected and delivered up at the right time and place – simplifying systems while also addressing data
privacy concerns.” 

Carter said one example of an industry practice that could be changed is centred around competitive data used by transport and logistics companies, especially around the cold chain. 

“For many years we have had 40,000 independent transport organisations with each considering that knowing how to get to the warehouse and when it is opened is somehow commercially competitive information,” he said. 

“Publishing and making information like the loading bay heights, access hours, amenities, refrigeration capabilities and the like should not be competitive data. That needs to be open information to streamline logistics.” 

To address these challenges, and a string of other issues to prevent contamination risks and traceability failures in the future, an increase in collaboration between industry stakeholders and regulatory bodies is developing new and improved standards.

Carter says, “governments can help industry focus on the simple things that matter and make an impact – building foundational capabilities for enhanced supply chain traceability and letting industry drive innovation.”

The emergence of innovative new technologies is exciting however history has shown that without the right foundations and conditions in place, the best ideas make interesting media releases but can come to little or naught in the real world.  Supply chain standards of the likes of GS1 are helping in this regard. 

“By addressing these challenges, the food and agriculture industry aims to ensure the safety and quality of its products and maintain
consumer confidence.

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