November 19, 2012
technology review | Tracking & Tracing

The coming of farm-to-fork traceability

The coming of farm-to-fork traceability

Before long, nearly everyone in the food supply chain should have tools to trace products back to the point of origin. It's the law, and it's good for business.

By Peter Bradley

Over the summer, cantaloupes tainted by two strains of salmonella entered the food supply chain, killing at least three people and sickening more than 200 others before the scare was over.

The first illness was reported in early July, but it wasn't until late August that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced a recall of the cantaloupes, which were grown by Owensville, Ind.-based Chamberlain Farms. Several weeks later, watermelons from the same farm were added to the recall.

That may have been the most serious food recall of the year, but it was hardly the only one. The FDA website has a long list of food recalls, most often for salmonella contamination.

The recalls, implemented by grocers, food manufacturers, food-service distributors, and others in the food chain, are the most public indicator of just how serious participants have become about the safety of their products. Spurred in part by outbreaks of foodborne disease, the industry is focusing greater attention than ever on food safety.

Public health is the chief concern, followed by potential liability and brand protection issues. Added to that are long-delayed rules that will implement the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), signed into law in early 2011. The law requires all companies in food supply chains to be able to trace foods back to the point of origin. It is unclear when the rules, which are being crafted with significant industry input, will be published, but industry experts expect it will be in the not-too-distant future.

The term that's been coined for the effort is "farm-to-fork traceability." And major grocers and food-service distributors, to ensure their own ability to comply with the regulations, will likely insist their suppliers take part.

They're liable to get a mixed response to those requests. Big growers have already begun complying with the FSMA, says Bruce Stubbs, director of industry marketing for Intermec, which provides printers, mobile computers, and other tracing technologies to the food industry. But that's not always the case with their smaller brethren, he says.

"Some of the smaller growers are starting to investigate ways to become compliant and use technology [to] do that," Stubbs says. "But others are pushing back at what they look at as [a significant] expense."

That resistance could cost them business in the long run, Stubbs warns. "What retailers are telling me is that once the mandate is out, they will start pushing back on smaller growers, telling them that if they don't become compliant, they are not going to do business with them," he says.

What will the FDA require? Dan Vaché, vice president of supply chain management for the United Fresh Produce Association, which is part of a group developing standards and processes for the produce industry, says the FDA will require the use of electronic records, development of a common language that everyone can use, and the ability to quickly trace a product, usually within 24 to 48 hours of a request for that information.

The agency will also want to know who handled the product and how it was moved through the supply chain, according to Vaché.

In some ways, the industry is well ahead of regulators. GS1 US, a nonprofit organization that is working across the industry to develop bar-code standards for identifying and tracking products, is collaborating with every major food sector to develop approaches for tracking food through the entire supply chain.

Michelle Southall, an implementation manager for GS1 US, says the organization's standards will meet the requirement to know what happened to a food shipment—"where it was harvested, when it was shipped, where it was put away, when it was received."

But achieving end-to-end visibility and traceability is complex given the number of players in food supply chains and the number of interactions. Kevin Payne, senior director of marketing for Intelleflex, cites a real-life example of 40 small blackberry farms shipping to a single packinghouse that then ships fruit to three DCs.

"Think about all the possible combinations. How do you deal with all that? Then multiply that by the number of products and the number of distributors, and the complexity becomes mind-boggling," Payne says. Intelleflex offers battery-assisted passive RFID tags and on-demand data visibility solutions for tracking and monitoring the temperature of produce, dairy items, meats, and frozen and packaged foods.

Distribution centers are right in the middle of it all. Mike Lee, president and CEO of Airclic, a company that offers cloud-based software for tracking goods moving in food-service distributors' private fleets, says one of the challenges facing his food-service customers is their position as intermediary between producers and end customers.

"Taking the whole idea of farm-to-fork traceability, how are they making sure that goods are properly tracked all the way through? Having this ability [to track items] all the way to the restaurant or hospital or school is something they are taking very seriously," Lee says.

A prime example of the efforts to improve chainwide traceability comes from the produce industry and its Produce Traceability Initiative (PTI), an effort that pre-dates FSMA. Vaché says the initiative, which includes his organization and three others, got its formal start in 2008, but that its origins go back to the spinach crisis in 2006. That crisis, in which spinach contaminated with E. coli caused dozens of illnesses and several deaths, cost the industry between $40 million and $70 million that year.

The following year was even worse for spinach growers and processors. "People just stopped consuming spinach," Vaché says. Investigators finally determined the contaminated spinach came from a single field on a 40-acre farm in California and was processed in one facility for a number of brand owners.

The spinach recall was just one of many in that period. Vaché says the industry had about 900 recalls in 2007 and 2008. "The response proved difficult and costly," he says.

The produce industry acknowledged it had to do a better job with traceability. The problem, Vaché explains, was the amount of time needed to trace food back to its origin under the existing processes. "It took an inordinate amount of time," he says. That led to creation of the PTI, which involves growers, shippers, wholesalers, and grocers.

Vaché admits that implementation is not as far along as participants might like. According to GS1 US, the goal was to have supply chain-wide electronic traceability for every case of produce by the end of 2012. Though the industry is unlikely to meet that goal, officials say it is making progress.

Even those who may have initially resisted because of the cost of implementation are coming around, Payne says. "Things have been slow," he says, "but of late we're seeing more interest in the general concept of traceability."

Those who adopt technology to comply with the regulations (or the demands of their channel partners) are discovering it has other benefits. Some food businesses, particularly smaller growers, worry about the cost of the implementation. But Vaché says that all of the participants are learning that implementing tracking systems not only meets anticipated regulations, but can also provide valuable data for managing the supply chain.

He cites as an example emerging technologies that allow fruit to be tracked back to the worker who picked and packed it. That may be very useful in a recall. But it can also be put to use, for example, in managing payroll by keeping track of just how much a worker picked and packed, he says.

Stubbs of Intermec says companies adopting technology solutions for traceability are also using the information they provide to improve efficiency and reduce costs. In a case study posted on its website, Intermec describes the experience of Lindsay, Calif.-based LoBue Citrus, which implemented an automated system with an Intermec printer to cut the time needed to trace back shipments. The orange grower also found that the system boosted its inventory accuracy to between 98 and 99 percent from the low 90s, and eliminated the need to conduct daily physical inventories.

Intermec, Stubbs says, has a product for small growers—a "solution in a box"—that includes all the software and hardware needed to provide the information he expects the final rules will require. He says "smart" Intermec printers can be loaded with software that eliminates the need for workers in the field to connect to a server, a PC, or a laptop. Workers can simply create and apply labels in the field and scan them.

"We have done that in an economical manner so even small growers can become compliant," he says.

What will compliance cost? No one knows for certain. It will require investments across the food supply chain, but many of those investments could also yield benefits in other ways.

Payne of Intelleflex says, "What we are trying to explain to growers, shippers, and packers is that if you combine traceability and temperature monitoring, you're going to reduce the amount of food wasted and you will generate more revenues. Ultimately, paying for the solution improves the top line, and you get traceability for free."

About the Author

Peter Bradley
Editor Emeritus
Peter Bradley is an award-winning career journalist with more than three decades of experience in both newspapers and national business magazines. His credentials include seven years as the transportation and supply chain editor at Purchasing Magazine and six years as the chief editor of Logistics Management.

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