Richard Jones is chief technology officer for Linkfresh
Richard Jones is chief technology officer for Linkfresh

The public’s understanding of and appetite for food traceability information, fuelled by recent food safety scandals, has never been greater. Consumers and retailers expect easy access to information on how and where food was manufactured, where the ingredients came from, and where the finished item ended up.

These requirements are being placed on produce providers against a backdrop of having to do more with less; lower yields due to adverse weather conditions and the need to feed an ever increasing population mean it’s acutely important to be able manage produce quality and look end-to-end right through the supply chain.

Forward-thinking produce providers are seeking to measure crop quality or grade product actually out in the field, well before it reaches any kind of production process. These innovative producers are implementing solutions that go beyond the confines of the pack-house. The goal is to select suitable raw produce before margins are eroded further. Higher graded product will be automatically allocated to meet customer specifications on open orders; while alternative outlets and buyers are found for lower grade produce. This helps maximize profits and keep waste to an absolute minimum. With so many uses for a single crop it is important that producers can track exactly where each case of produce has come from and where it goes.

The Produce Traceability Initiative Leadership Council continues to push for industrywide adoption of standardized case-level traceability. The consensus is that the industry should stay on course with traceability implementations based on standardized product identification with batch and lot numbers encoded in GS1-128 bar codes on case labels. Broad adoption of advance ship notice, an electronic data interchange transaction, for exchanging traceability data plus outbound recording of the bar code data on cases of produce from distribution centers to retail and foodservice operations, is critical to the full realization of PTI goals, according to the group.

There are many benefits to be gained from implementing a full traceability process. Customer and consumer confidence can be maintained and even increased. Recalls, when they happen, can be limited to only the suspect product so that non-implicated products can continue to be distributed and sold in stores. By expediting tracking while minimizing business disruptions and costs, investigations can occur more efficiently. Finally, storing information from throughout the supply chain electronically enables electronic interrogation, analysis and data sharing to update other business areas.

Innovation and technology are always at the heart of problem solving. However, as with any system, procedures and accurate record keeping are critical for usability and success. A good mantra to follow is that even the best tracking and tracing systems become useless without real-time (as-it-happens) information. The use of technology to facilitate data capture removes duplication of effort or the need to re-key data, thus eliminating errors and reducing labor. Electronic data, once captured, can be used repeatedly not only for traceability, but for business and operational planning.  

When budgeting to implement a traceability solution, an organization should first consider how the public health, consumer confidence and economic costs of not implementing traceability significantly outweigh the costs of completing an installation.

Keep in mind that empowering a category manager with meaningful information sourced from every part of the supply and production process is a valuable tool. And, when the unexpected phone call comes from a retailer requesting an audit of exactly where a particular case of product originated, responding quickly to the request becomes less stressful with suitable tracking in place.