Food traceability technology is evolving, with professionals increasingly moving from disorganized, gap-filled paper records to thorough, shareable electronic documentation of product information. However, according to one food traceability expert, if producers, retailers, and others along the supply chain do not come up with a common, easily understood way to share such information, all is for naught.
Hilary Thesmar, vice president of food safety programs at the Food Marketing Industry, told FoodProductionDaily while regulators require improved traceability, the consumer remains king. Food firms should keep a consumer’s needs and interests in mind when considering the information needed to be documented and shared.
“As you’re shopping, what do you want from the food package—do you want to see traceability information?” she asked. “What might you already know? Do you have confidence in the product based on the package? Are there products where you’re left wanting a little more information?”
The consumer of today, Thesmar said, is more educated than in previous years. They have more information in their heads about food and nutrition, but they also want to learn more.
“A lot of consumers are skeptical,” Thesmar said. “They want a lot more information about the foods they’re purchasing, and they want it to be transparent—either visible on the label, or easily accessible via the label.”
Thesmar related a consumer study touching upon shoppers’ attitudes toward and interest in product tracking information. She reported when asked to choose between an item with thorough product tracking data, and a lower-priced item of similar quality without such information, nearly 60% indicated they would rather pay a higher price than be ignorant of a product’s tracking info.
Food information must be recorded for a number of reasons, Thesmar said, involving consumers, regulators, and other interested parties.
“We do it for regulatory compliance, so that if a company is under investigation and regulators need traceability records, it’s there,” she said. “For a lot of companies, that’s the most stressful thing you can go through—it’s a panic because you have to go through mountains and mountains of paperwork, and you don’t know where to start.”
To avoid rummaging for vital data in the face of an incident, Thesmar said, going from paper electronic is not just convenient, but necessary.
“There are greater efficiencies with electronics, and it can save companies a lot of money,” she said.
A typical retail distribution center has hundreds of thousands of foods, beverages, and other consumer products moving in and out every single day, Thesmar said. With so many different products streaming in and out on a regular basis, coming from and going to different locations and customers, coming up with a common language to collect and share traceability data is crucial.
“If everyone’s on a private, proprietary system and can’t share data efficiently, how do you think that’s going to work at retail?” she queried. “We have to have one computer system that can capture all of the information from all of the products, make sense of it, and know exactly what’s going out the door to the stores.”
Thesmar pointed toward the Produce Traceability Initiative as a good effort to attain common understanding of traceability. The program seeks to establish a universal way to trace product from growers, to retail distribution centers, and beyond, and doing so, she said, will require industry-wide cooperation.
“We have to talk to each other, and we have to work with each other,” she said. “No problems are solved in a silo.”
Additionally, IFT has put forth its Global Food Traceability Center. Thesmar said the group, which originated last year, is dedicated to fostering interoperability in traceability technology and information sharing.
“The vision is to become the global resource and authoritative voice on food traceability,” she said. “The idea of having one central place under one umbrella really appealed to us.”
Keep it simple
Traceability is simple on the surface, Thesmar said—you need to know what the product is, where it originated and where it went, and when it moved from one place to another. While the amount of information attached to one product can be lengthy, she advised trying to keep things as simple as possible, narrowing to key data elements and critical tracking events.
“Everyone wants to list everything, including the kitchen sink,” she said. “If you just share the essential information with your suppliers, it will be easier to operate.”
Traceability becomes an important tool in the face of an outbreak, Thesmar said. Efficient product tracking can manage the loss of consumer confidence coming after a high-profile foodborne pathogen outbreak, she said.
“What we see in these cases is that consumers don’t always return to consuming those affected products—you lose consumer trust,” she said. “By speeding the release of information, and containing, we may be able to change those numbers.”
Thesmar added research shows approximately half of consumers abandoning a particular product after an outbreak will not return in the space of the 12 months after the incident.
Ask the average consumer and they might say the number of foodborne outbreaks is on the rise, Thesmar said. However, what is really happening is increased concern about food safety is coupling with technological advancement (and increased understanding of how to apply technology) to increase awareness, rather than incidence.
Thesmar spoke to FPD during the recent IFT 2014 event, a conference and exposition focused on food safety, production, technology, and packaging.