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From: Food Quality & Safety magazine, October/November 2009

Tracking Food Safety

Are you ready for a national traceability system?

by Brian Cute

U.S. food safety legislation is in the works to create a national food traceability system that would help to protect consumers from foodborne illness and would enable food manufacturers to increase their responsiveness and ability to participate in the recall process. The objective of the food traceability system is to find tainted food and remove it from the shelves as quickly as possible.

If the new food safety legislation is signed into law, many participants in the food supply chain will be affected and may be required to participate in traceability technology pilots as early as next year.

The implementation of such technology raises critical concerns for those involved in the food supply chain. Congress has already heard from cattle ranchers and farmers with concerns about adopting unique identification systems, implementing new technology, and sharing data with government agencies and competitors.

Congress will have to address these important issues, and none may be more important than the technology that will be used.

True End-to-End Traceability

The problem with tainted food outbreaks today is lack of visibility in the food supply chain and our inability to quickly identify tainted food and pull it from the shelves. This visibility was supposed to have been improved by a number of traceability products on the market. In fact, these products only address parts of the problem, and most of them are proprietary in nature.

While some products offer trace forward or trace back capabilities, none offer the true end-to-end traceability that would allow a manufacturer or regulator to see the entire life cycle and path of a food item from creation to consumption.

New technology that can effectively provide end-to-end traceability is needed to effect rapid, surgical recalls to protect the health of consumers as envisioned in the current food safety legislation. These recalls must be precise, removing only tainted foods from the supply chain, to prevent the millions of dollars of loss that results from the current practice of recalling untainted products whose safety cannot be confirmed. This type of visibility would also allow related product brands and products to tout their safety with confidence, even in the midst of widespread recalls.

Lessons From the Internet

To build a national food traceability system, everyone has to be able to participate. The best model that we have for a ubiquitous, enabling technology that shares information is the Internet.

The Internet developed out of a network of computers called ARPANET, which was supported by the U.S. government. Adoption truly began when its tech- nology was published as standards documentation that was made available to all online service providers. These standards are now called RFCs (requests for comments) and are managed by a nonprofit standards organization called the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF). Over 5,000 RFCs exist today, and they serve as the blueprint for how a globally accessible and interoperable technology can be implemented to scale.

Unfortunately, our food safety technology currently operates like a Commodore 64 when what we need is iPhone capability. In order for a national food traceability system to be adopted and to scale, the technology that underpins it must, like the Internet, be standards-based and interoperable. This foundation will allow any organization to access it in a uniform way and will provide a platform for innovation, enabling new technologies that can improve quality control and food safety response.

In fact, given the nature of the food supply chain, the system must scale not only nationally but also internationally so that recalls can also be conducted on foods that are both imported into, and exported from, the United States.

Even with a technical standards process for food traceability, companies that participate in a supply chain will always be concerned with sharing data about their products with their competitors or the government. To ease these concerns and smooth the way for adoption, a national traceability system must have security features that will protect the data that is provided by participating companies but will still allow for end-to-end traceability of a food item.

Moreover, neither supply chain participants nor governments can be expected to be comfortable with the idea of a single organization maintaining a gigantic database that collects and maintains all the traceability data for the entire food supply chain. The technology adopted for a national food traceability system can engender competition for traceability services if it is based on standards that allow for limited data sharing and security. Competition will ensure that there is not a single monopoly provider with undue access to data and will provide choice and lower prices for traceability services that food supply chain participants need to purchase.

Discovery Services

An emerging new technology called discovery services (DS) can provide the solution to many of the questions surrounding the implementation of a national food traceability system. DS is an open, standards-based software protocol that can be implemented along with any traceability or inventory tracking software system. In effect, DS provides a referral service that allows food supply chain participants to find the source of data about a given product. Once the source is found, the participants can choose whether or not to share more data about a given product depending on their commercial relationship.

DS is currently in draft at EPCglobal, an organization that is developing a number of standards for the use of radio frequency identification (RFID) and other types of electronic identification systems. As a referral service, it requires only “thin data”—the who, what, when, and where data points for each food item. Each of these reference events can be provided to a DS to create a complete life cycle view of a food item across the inventory-tracking databases at multiple companies around the world. With this model, companies do not need to share commercially sensitive data and can control who has access to each reference event, while still providing a full road map of where a product has been for trace back during a recall.

In much the same way that standards underpin the global scalability of the Internet and have contributed to its growth and adoption, the DS standards process aims to facilitate traceability across geographic and network boundaries and solve many of the limitations the food supply faces today.

For instance, food supply chains are faced with hybrid identification systems. DS can handle multiple types of product identifiers, from something as simplistic as an animal tattoo to systems as extensive as 2D data matrix or RFID chips.

DS can also handle a critical challenge for ingredient manufacturers, aggregating and disaggregating identifiers from produce to ingredients and back to final meals. For instance, a cow is processed into many different packages of meat. At the farm, the cow is identified with an ear tag or a microchip. Once it is processed, each piece of meat sold from that one cow is assigned its own unique identifier, one that relates back to the cow’s master tag. DS can leverage this aggregation and disaggregation so that when a recall event occurs, the full path, from the tainted piece of meat being sold back to the cow that may have been infected with a disease, can be traced.

The benefit of this traceability is evidenced in the major peanut butter recall of 2009. The recall affected not only peanut butter but also a variety of foods containing peanut products—peanut paste, whole, crushed, and powdered peanuts, and many other products, including granola bars, ice cream, and cereal. Additionally, the distribution network was not limited to supermarkets; it included schools, retirement homes, and restaurants that use these ingredients in their meals. A DS could have provided a clearer map of where the actual affected product had been sent and consumed, so that other peanut butter manufacturers and products would not have had to unnecessarily recall their products and lose millions of dollars due to poor consumer confidence.

In addition to compliance with food recall requirements, DS can favorably impact food quality—with cold chain products, for example. Temperature readings of cold chain products can be pushed to DS so that alerts can be sent to quality managers for products that go outside their temperature range for an unacceptable period of time; these products can subsequently be pulled from the supply chain.

DS can also provide accrued product visibility data that, combined with business applications, identifies problem areas in the supply chain (e.g., excessive warehousing times, duration of transport and routing). This information will allow manufacturers to reduce costs, ensure quality, and gain efficiency in product distribution.

Simply put, DS can make whole chain traceability a reality. Because it is a standards-based approach, it is also a cost-effective alternative for organizations to participate in a national food traceability system—in the U.S. or in any other country.

If utilized for the proposed U.S. national traceability system, DS would provide the FDA access to data that is necessary to ensure a swifter and more effective response in the event of a tainted food outbreak, along with the ability to coordinate recalls with rapid, surgical precision.

For food manufacturers, the benefit offered by DS is that it enables compliance with food safety legislation at a lower cost than integrating large proprietary tracing systems. DS will also improve the reliability of their product recall process, whether in speeding up discovery and elimination of affected product, or simply in mitigating damage to their brand quality.

Cute is vice president of Discovery Services for Afilias. Reach him at briancute@afilias.info or (215) 385-4790.

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