The concept of traceability has been around for thousands of years arising from a need to identify property by way of unique markings and/or features. The concept has evolved from this age-old practice to become the program that weaves together every element of our agri-food supply chain.
There are a number of well-known reasons why food processors are adopting some degree of traceability. These include:
- Customer requirements
- Regulatory requirements
- Risk and/or loss mitigation
- Process control
- Cost control
- Defense of brand equity
Most producers and processors adopt traceability measures for some or all of the above reasons, each in their own unique way to comply with the perceived current and potential future needs. But in doing so, many have encountered some real challenges in implementing their programs.
Customer requirements are rarely spelled out clearly and, in my experience, leave the supplier wondering to what degree ingredients and process variables need to be controlled and monitored. Substantial investments in human resources, process engineering, equipment and software may be the result. Although these investments are usually proportional to the size of the firm, the costs are always significant.
Older establishments with legacy paper programs also have considerable difficulty migrating to digital systems. They lack the computer systems expertise that newer plants have from day one. Older equipment is not easily retrofitted with sensors to collect data. Despite advances made in improving computer hardware durability and portability, input-terminals (PCs, tablets, pads and smart phones) are still fragile and regularly fail at the worst of times. Going digital requires the development of new forms to capture data and the grudging acceptance of new protocols which seem to need continuous tweaking for a wide variety of good reasons. In the end, good people skills are as critical as computer savvy to the successful introduction of digital traceability in older plants.
Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) program requirements for traceability vary by program, as do an auditor’s interpretation of the standards. Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) requirements are likely to evolve in the next few years under the inspection modernization program. Thus, really knowing what current audit requirements are now and what they are likely to be in the future further add to the challenges food processors face in developing a traceability solution. Regardless of these uncertainties, processors and importers will all be required to have a traceability program in order to do business in Canada.
The extent to which a firm can assume the risk of losses arising from a recall, product destruction and the consequent loss of customers and market share, all play a large part in designing the company’s traceability program. The more risk averse a company is, the more sophisticated its traceability program will need to be. Another factor that often comes into play is underwriter requirements to secure reasonable liability insurance premiums. The more you appear to be on top of your game, the lower your premium.
Those selling traceability programs are adamant that traceability programs pay for themselves in ways other than mitigating losses due to recalls and the need to be in regulatory compliance. These benefits arise from process control resulting in lower waste, better and more consistent quality, and lower variable operating costs resulting from ingredient and process data that can be collected from sophisticated software applications. This is true in cases where the right data is collected and when the company’s staff and management can mine the data for improvements and cost savings.
There are hundreds of firms selling traceability solutions today. Begin by knowing your needs, which will usually be dictated by your customer and regulatory demands. Talk with other members of trade associations that you belong to as to how they developed their traceability programs. Consult with companies that have the expertise and a long pedigree in traceability solutions. For example, firms like Lyngsoe Systems (www.lyngsoesystems.com) and CAT2 (www.catsquared.com). Another excellent source of information is the Institute of Food Technologist’s Global Food Traceability Center (www.ift.org/gftc).
Good traceability programs connect all the important components and weave a stronger food safety net for your firm. When done correctly, there are many benefits beyond complying with customer and regulatory demands.
Dr. R.J. (Ron) Wasik PhD, MBA, CFS, is president of RJW Consulting Canada Ltd., based in Delta, B.C. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org