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Keeping track: how traceability initiatives protect our food.

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Food safety is at the top of everyone's mind these days. Understanding what goes in your food is important, and the lab work required to ensure food safety is key, but what happens in a crisis? How did your dinner make it to the dinner table? Where did it go, what did it eat, where was it processed? Enter OuTface, a not-for-profit corporation formed in response to recommendations from the Ontario On-Farm Safety Strategy, a collaboration of Ontario industry and government representatives. OnTrace is dedicated to creating a comprehensive system of traceability in the province.

Talk to a traceability expert and they will tell you that their job has very little to do with science. Their job involves being able to track where food goes, where it has gone, and above all else, provide a flow of information.

When battling food contamination, time is of the essence. Without immediate access to the proper information, food inspection authorities are fighting a losing battle. The longer it takes to trace a contaminated lot or batch, the harder it becomes to contain a problem. If the source of the contamination is feed, having reliable information on the origins of the feed, where it was shipped, and which animals consumed the feed is necessary for the proper control of the situation. Since traceability systems act as the guidance systems for food inspection officials, it is clear how important it is to preserving and protecting food.

A quick look at the headlines from the past year and it's easy to understand the reasons why implementing a comprehensive traceability system has become so important. From melamine being added as a supplement in food, to the home-grown listeria crisis, to the dioxins recently found in pork exports from Ireland, traceability systems can not only protect the customer but the industry. When contaminated products are found, a robust traceability system makes it easier to perform targeted, isolated recalls which protect the food industry in Canada.

Despite its seemingly obvious benefits, traceability can be a contentious issue. There are no sweeping guidelines from the Canadian government mandating traceability, and the problems with many agricultural initiatives are that participation has been on a voluntary basis. And with traceability, every person involved in the food industry immediately becomes more accountable. It's a false sense of vulnerability though the science behind traceability has reached a point where the origins of the problem will eventually be found, it is just a matter of time.

The work that is involved in building relationships with every level of the supply chain mainly revolve around the three major concerns: liability, protection of privacy and cost. Traceability programs involve a system of sharing information at every level but there are questions about who can access the data, when, where, why and how. The agreements that are being created do not simply give traceability systems such as OuTface carte blanche said Nick Albu technology director at OnTrace.

This is not to say that traceability initiatives such as OnTrace haven't met with success. In fact, according to Albu they are getting excellent voluntary response from these groups.

"It is not fast. There are hurdles. We're starting from scratch, building agreements, but once the agreements are in place, in the event of an emergency, we can now act," he explains.

Once the agreements are in place, Albu believes that they will help more than just consumers. "I think it will do two things," states Albu. "It will protect the farmers and producers who are not contaminated and it will open up market access."

Market access is a term discussed readily amongst traceability experts. When a crisis such as contaminated beef breaks out, it jeopardizes the entire Canadian beef industry because other countries are quick to stop importing any beef from Canada. With traceability, isolated outbreaks can remain isolated. "It reduces cost by providing more accurate, targeted recall of the product or animals and avoiding the complete wipeout of an industry or a growing season," said Albu.

"If I am a farmer that did not use the contaminated feed, I'm thrown in that same pail with everybody else," said Albu. "A benefit here would be if there was a robust traceability system, the places that are not affected by the emergency can continue on with their business."

The benefits of a traceability system are clear; it means protection ... of both the consumer and the industry. It seems easy; clear and desirable benefits should translate into fast implementation of a system. Yet, the challenges to creating a traceability system are numerous.

First, participation from all parties involved in the value chain is key. "In agriculture ... it's all voluntary along the line," said Albu. "Without a high level of participation, effectiveness of any traceability system is going to be diminished. If you think of the long value chain, where chemicals are going into a farm, to product that is on the shelf, if one piece along that value chain decides not to participate, the entire system will be reduced in its effectiveness."

Second, the complexity of a traceability system makes its implementation difficult. Albu explains that traceability is extremely similar to inventory tracking.

"Traceability is conceptually simple, but complex to implement because of all the participants in the chain and all the changes that happen to food as it moves from farm, to processor, to retailer, to restaurant," said Albu.

Third, is the information being used, credible and reliable? The information that comes from all sources is ideally checked by a third party auditor for quality and reliability. If this step is missed, the system is flawed.

Understanding who must be involved in a comprehensive system ensures the proper information is always available. "There are some key transition points where the product is moved from one major point in the chain to the next," said Albu.

The logical places where OnTrace can track the transactions include, when the products are moved from farm to auction, to a processor or to a retailer, and also the truckers, shippers and receivers.

"The intent here is to try and make it nonintrusive," said Albu. "We're not trying to add another level of work to this. Things are moving anyways and we're trying to use those logical transfer points as places where we can record the information."

Albu explains that timeliness is critical. When dealing with food contamination and safety, making phone calls and having people look through binders of paper won't cut it.

OnTrace's mandate requires a new system to be written. To ensure timeliness, they must make all the information that is currently available, electronic. Where does an organization begin to approach such a daunting task?

Albu explains that many producer groups already have good systems in place, such as dairy farmers, chicken farmers and egg producers.

"They deal with food safety all the time and they deal with the Ministry of Agriculture and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency all the time," said Albu. "Now, the ministry of agriculture and the other folks that are responsible for responding in an emergency need to react just as quickly, no matter where the emergency is. Instead of having a different protocol for every single kind of food group that is having an emergency, they are looking for a single point of contact."

Ideally, the traceability system will eventually allow for an agent responsible for food safety to notice an emergency, log into the system and get the information they need.

Minutes are precious in the event of an emergency. With information being their biggest asset, and time their enemy, testing a trace-ability system becomes very important. Testing a traceability system, explains Albu, involves a lot of table-top discussion. Get every key organization together and create a mock scenario.

"You find gaps," Albu said. "And the job is to go out and fix those gaps before the emergency actually happens."

To completely understand food safety and the people involved, it is critical to see the micro view at the lab level, where food inspection is completed. However, the people responsible for getting the inspectors to the right place, fast, can be equally important. They not only protect the consumers of Canadian food products, but the Canadian food industry itself.
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Author:Rogers, Chris
Publication:Canadian Chemical News
Date:Feb 1, 2009
Words:1373
Previous Article:Unknown non-food chemical contaminants: challenges in laboratory analysis.
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