Food safety today is taking centre stage with the spotlight clearly beaming down on the need for an unequivocal, standard practice across the entire food sector.
The recent 2015 frozen berries case is not the first food safety incident of its kind and it won’t be the last. According to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) Product Safety Recalls Australia website there were 75 recalls of food and grocery items in 2014 alone.
The latest incident was preceded by other high profile cases including the Hepatitis A outbreak allegedly linked to semi-dried tomatoes in Australia in 2009, and the contamination scare that triggered a recall of Fonterra products that may have contained whey protein in a number of countries around the world, including China and Australia, in 2013.
Initial detection of the cause of a foodborne virus outbreak or food contamination is clearly an issue for the food regulators to review and address as part of the Food Standards Code.
According to FoodLegal, experts in Australian and international food law, “It appears that little has been done to improve the situation for preventing an outbreak of food-born Hepatitis A in foods in Australia in the period from the last major outbreak, which occurred in 2009, until the latest outbreak in 2015.” Source: “Hepatitis A and food testing: What lessons were learned by governments from last time?”, 10 March 2015.
These food safety incidents have also identified an inherent gap in the current traceability systems we have in the Australian food chain today.
To help prevent these food contamination outbreaks from reoccurring in the interests of public health and safety, we need to examine the learnings from these incidents and explore the opportunities for improving traceability and supply chain visibility.
Product visibility and traceability through the supply chain
Following the Government Inquiry into the Whey Protein Concentrate Contamination Incident involving Fonterra, The Dairy Traceability Working Group was established in New Zealand.
Recent reports released by the Dairy Traceability Working Group outline the most appropriate regulatory provision for the traceability of dairy products and the development of a code of practice to guide the dairy industry in implementing these requirements.
It is important to note that recommendations of the working group will also be considered for all food sectors, not just dairy.
The working Group’s proposed regulatory requirements include:
- End-to-end traceability from farm to consumer using the “one up, one down” system (tracing back where product has come from and tracking forward where product has gone), with particular reference to participants in the supply chain having access to Recallnet – the voluntary product recall online portal administered by GS1
- Future consideration of implementing EPCIS (EPC Information Services) – a GS1 standard that enables trading partners to share information about the physical movement and status of products as they travel through the supply chain from business to business and ultimately to the consumer. EPCIS is an international tool that enables seamless end-to-end traceability.
GS1 standards to protect the Australian food chain
To protect the security of the Australian food chain and the safety of consumers, the implementation of GS1 standards will allow for better visibility of product, up and down the supply chain at all times. By using GS1 standards, the recalled products will be able to be traced quickly and efficiently back to the source of origin.
Traceability is all about tracking any food through all stages of the supply chain from the source of raw materials, additives and other ingredients through to production, processing, packaging and distribution, including importation and retail.
Effective traceability enables food businesses to specifically target the product(s) affected by a food safety problem, thereby minimising disruption to trade and reducing potential public health risks.
GS1 standards exist today to encode data such as batch/lot numbers, use-by and best before dates and other product attributes at all levels of packaging from bulk materials to single produce items and finished goods.
Recall communication plan
Traceability is an important part of an organisation’s product recall management plan.
“Not having effective traceability processes can often lead to delays in actioning a product recall. This is one of the leading causes of incidents escalating into a crisis,” said Maria Palazzolo, Chief Executive Officer at GS1 Australia.
“The ability for a company to successfully track and trace their products through their supply chain and retrieve them from the marketplace is a key component to protecting the safety of the consumer and protecting the brand.”
The speed and effectiveness with which a recall is communicated to retailers and government authorities has implications for not only consumer safety, but a firm’s business reputation.
A detailed and well thought out recall communication plan is therefore an essential business tool for any company.
With GS1 Australia’s Recallnet, issuing a recall or withdrawal notification is simple, fast and inexpensive. Recallnet is a centralised online portal designed to streamline the management of product recall and withdrawal notifications. Distribution of a recall using Recallnet facilitates significant improvement in the speed of notification to stakeholders.
Based on global GS1 standards and best practices, Recallnet simplifies and automates the exchange of information between suppliers, distributors and retailers as well as government agencies such as FSANZ and the ACCC.
Implementing GS1 standards
Technologies including barcodes capable of encoding and capturing much more than a single product identifier through all points in a supply chain, allowing for greater product traceability have been in existence since 2005 but have not been adopted by industry.
Thirty-six years ago, Australian retailers adopted the GS1 System of barcoding and numbering as their preferred standard for trade.
GS1 Australia will coordinate a working group with industry support to discuss the adoption of traceability technologies to identify the costs and benefits to brand owners and the industry, and develop a road map for implementation.
“GS1 Australia has assisted Australian food and beverage businesses in improving their ability to track and trace their products up and down their supply chains by implementing GS1 standards,” added Mrs Palazzolo.
“We work towards helping industry create a seamless supply chain, allowing Australian companies to adopt world’s best practice supply chain management techniques.”
GS1 DataBar – The one little thing that will have a BIG impact
GS1 DataBar is a new family of barcodes that are an open, global standard, just like existing EAN/UPC barcodes. They have a huge potential to transform the way retailers do business as they carry more information than the current GS1 retail Point-of-Sale (POS) barcodes. They can be used on small, hard-to-mark consumer products and fresh produce, enabling a piece of fruit to be scanned instead of being looked up on the system.
In the instance of the recent frozen berries scare – if the finished product had been barcoded with a GS1 DataBar, the product recall could have been much more efficient as it would have provided greater visibility about which consumers had purchased the product and which retail outlet had a particular batch that may have been contaminated.
For fresh produce, GS1 Australia and GS1 New Zealand are currently working with the Produce Marketing Association Australia-New Zealand (PMA A-NZ) to develop a roadmap for the implementation of a more effective produce identification and traceability system, including GS1 DataBar, for produce sold as loose or in bulk.
Australian retailers began a process of upgrading their store scanning systems to accommodate GS1 DataBar in 2006. Unfortunately, other priorities have pushed ahead of implementing this capability across their networks.