Could whole chain traceability be the answer to food safety?

burger_blogWhen it comes to food recalls, having a traceability plan can be extremely important for food companies as it can help determine if products were contaminated before arriving at their facilities. Known as looking “one back,” this was exactly the case for an ice cream company, when it discovered its second Listeria contamination in two years.

Because the company had recently overhauled its facilities and passed state health inspections, they looked for a particular ingredient that could be responsible for the contamination. As it turned out, the company was sourcing contaminated cookie dough from an outside supplier, and while the cookie dough company at first disputed these claims, they eventually initiated their own recall and contacted its manufacturing customers to ensure they recalled any of their own products that might contain the contaminated ingredient. This is known as looking “one-up.”

As explained in a recent article, this is an example of the “one-up-one-back” approach. It’s commonly used in the food industry, but may not always account for anomalies that occur farther back or forward in the supply chain.

“There’s not really a robust, industry-wide enhanced traceability for manufacturers to look all the way back and all the way forward,” Katy Jones, VP of marketing at FoodLogiQ, said in the article. “So you do see a lot of those types of recalls where a food company needs to know where they sourced their food from.”

Food safety experts say that whole chain traceability may be the key to faster, more concentrated, and less costly recalls — improving food safety and increased transparency in the food and beverage industry. But due to a variety of challenges, others wonder if whole chain traceability is even feasible.

A handful of major recalls in the past decade have brought the need for increased traceability into the spotlight. For example, the 2008-2009 Salmonella outbreak in peanut butter was so widespread because the company didn’t realize the problem right away as the ultimate source of the contamination wasn’t on its supply chain radar, explained Mike Robach, VP of corporate food safety, quality and regulatory at Cargill.

“We focus per the regulations one-up-one-back, but I would say even with some of our contract manufacturers we go two back — we go to their suppliers,” Robach continued. “[During the recall], we had a supplier of a supplier to the contract manufacturer who was making a blended material with some of the contaminated peanut butter. But we found out six months after everyone else did because it was so far back in the supply chain.”

Add the peanut butter outbreak to the recent massive flour recall and the recent mysterious sugar recall, it’s easy to see this scenario is all too common across the industry. This is where whole chain traceability comes into play.

Descried as allowing manufacturers to find sourcing and food safety practices from end to end of its supply chain — from farm to fork — whole chain traceability sounds like the best possible solution to many food safety problems. But with the complex nature of today’s global supply chains, is this a feasible goal for manufacturers?

Some products and commodities may have an easier time implementing whole chain traceability than others due to the nature of standard harvesting, processing, storage and delivery practices, Robach explained.

“I can trace turkeys, or I can trace animals or eggs back to the farm, and I’ve got all the information with the feed, and everything you’d ever want to know about that animal. But if you’re talking about flour or soybean oil, canola oil or margarine, it gets increasingly difficult,” Robach continued. “That’s especially if you think about the harvesting of grains and things like wheat or soy — there’s a lot of co-mingling that goes on from hundreds of farms that come into an elevator, and then they get distributed out to the processing plants. (Tracing that ingredient) back to an exact field is next to impossible.”

Furthermore, for international companies that source ingredients from dozens of countries, this can be acutely complex. The challenge is not always whether companies are capable of sharing information about their ingredient sourcing or safety practices, it’s whether they choose — or are permitted — to do so by local laws.

“There’s a lot of data privacy laws in Europe which makes sharing of information a lot more challenging than in other countries,” Peter Begg, senior director of global quality for an international food company, said in the article.

Another challenge for many manufacturers will be to let go of old ways of organizing and reporting operational and safety data. Many will have to do this in order to comply with new FSMA regulations, but manufacturers must also rely on their suppliers and customers — and those companies’ suppliers and customers — to do the same for true supply chain visibility.

“If you don’t know for certain that your suppliers are providing you with food that aligns to that grand claim, you’re in an extremely risky environment,” Jones said in the article. More companies, media organizations and consumers are uncovering issues around mislabeling and around companies selling food that isn’t what they say it is.”

DNA testing is also a food traceability option as it can identify the species of plants, animals, bacteria and other contaminants that a food or beverage product might contain. If test results don’t match the ingredients or claims on a product label, it can lead to costly litigation. But the article explains that litigation doesn’t always stem from purposeful tainting of the food supply.

“I don’t get the sense that across the industry it’s a malicious thing,” said Jones. “It’s an issue around not certifying and not getting that information from your supplier to have that visibility. That’s what causes this disconnect and these issues of mislabeling.”

Instead, to Jones, improving supply chain visibility and traceability just makes the most “good business sense.”

“To know that those suppliers have the same commitment to quality and safety as your brand is critical,” Jones added. “If you can monitor over time, ‘we’ve had five quality incidents from X tomato company, and none from this, I’m going to do more business with the supplier that we haven’t had any quality issues with.’ That protects your brand. Over time, hopefully that makes for a safer supply chain as you’re able to communicate issues back to your supplier.”

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