If cleanliness is next to godliness, traceability is next to transparency - a virtue very much in demand in today's Food and Beverage industry. There is more to this rising trend than simply an increasingly informed body of consumers looking to make woke product choices.
What is product traceability?
The International Organization for Standardization defines traceability as:
“The ability to follow the movement of a feed or food through specified stage(s) of production, processing and distribution” (ISO 22005/2007)
The standard also explains the principles and requirements for the design and implementation of feed and food traceability systems. The Codex Alimentarius Commission uses similar wording (CAC/GL 60-2006) and sets out “principles for traceability/product tracing as a tool within a food inspection and certification system”.
A closer look at traceability, also known as the “one-step-back-one-step-forward principle”, reveals two major distinctions:
Internal traceability requires companies to maintain processes linking the identities of raw materials to those of the finished goods. Whenever materials are processed, combined, reconfigured or repackaged, the new product must be given a unique product identifier. To maintain traceability, the link between this new product and all its original material inputs must be recorded (including any seasoning, marinades, packaging, etc.).
External traceability also relies upon the unique identification of all traceable items, but additionally requires information to be shared between all affected distribution channel participants. External traceability therefore extends from the original supplier to the end customer.
2. Backward vs forward traceability
Backward traceability refers to a company’s ability to trace an end product back to all its ingredients and establish the purposes for which the remainder of those ingredients were used (e.g. in the event of a serious customer complaint with food safety implications). It may also cover the prerequisite information pertaining to the respective supplier (one step back).
Forward traceability regards a company’s ability to account for all of the finished goods any one batch of a raw material went into. This may go as far as customer data (one step forward).
Does product traceability make good business sense?
Why should food and beverage providers pursue product traceability of their own accord? Traceability is an indicator of enforced quality standards at corporate level, which is conducive to customer confidence and therefore good for business. It can help customers more readily identify potential sources of cross-contamination during manufacturing processes, thus avoiding any inadvertent allergic reactions. It also serves to appease any concerns surrounding potential food safety issues, especially against the backdrop of headline-worthy outbreaks of E. coli, avian flu or foot and mouth disease. The words salmonella, norovirus and listeria are enough to make your stomach turn without further comment. This is even before entering into horsemeat masquerading as beefterritory, for example.
As well as boosting brand value and facilitating cultural compliance by providing sufficient information on whether or not a product fulfils Kosher or Halal criteria, say, product traceability can have tangible benefits in terms of business operations and revenues. In regard to the former, a solid traceability system facilitates smooth inventory, logistics and distribution processes and can help reduce response times in the event of product recalls, minimizing trade disruption. As for the latter, traceability can provide proof of purity or authenticity, justifying a higher retail price. This is complemented by hindering fraud or adulteration attempts by others, thereby putting competition in its place.
Implementation of product traceability in the F&B industry: Tools & tech
Traceability, particularly in the F&B industry, requires the maintenance of vast quantities of data of different types, which may include: batch codes, unit volumes, geographic origins, supplier information, customer contact details, operators on duty, delivery dates, write-offs and waste, order status details, stock levels, hallmarks of quality, taste profiles, animal and plant health. Moreover, this information must be structured in such a way that reflects the above-mentioned links and be called upon whenever required.
Meanwhile, teething issues with blockchain’s scalability and cost have led some F&B manufacturers to develop their own in-house systems. Diary giant Fonterra uses an SAP Global Batch Trace systemand has opted to provide consumers with real-time information using QR codes. Rockwell Automation offers a traceability platform called FactoryTalk® CPGSuitethat traces products through the production life cycle, while ProfilePrintuses a metabolomic food sensor to trace tea and other dried plant-based foods back to their origins by capturing molecular data and matching it against a cloud-based database.
Challenges worth facing
As you can imagine, there are a whole host of challenges involved in successfully guaranteeing traceability in the F&Bindustry. Skills gaps impeding rapid adoption, high upfront costs and cybersecurity risks are all legitimate barriers to implementation. However, considering your local legal framework, an improved ability to take targeted action if it becomes necessary and that extra polish to your company’s reputation, you may find it’s well worth aiming for it.