Food Traceability: Meeting Rising Expectations

Nick Flambard
November 2, 2016

Stricter regulations and consumers’ changing priorities have increased the pressure for greater transparency from food manufacturers and distributors. Food traceability plays an important role for both businesses and their customers as the demand for clear and thorough information on foods’ origins has increased: luckily, new technology is helping distributors keep up with these rising expectations.

What Is Food Traceability?

Food traceability is the ability to track food back to its origins, through the stages of distribution, processing, and manufacturing. Data that facilitates this process includes detailed information on all ingredients, additives, and packaging.   Traceability has always been important for food safety, but now, with increased reports of food-borne illnesses, regulations are tighter. End consumers also care more about where their food comes from and often use this information to help decide which products to buy. Let’s look at a few ways food traceability impacts food manufacturers and distributors and how new technology can help make this information more accessible.

Why Food Traceability Matters

Consumer Interests

Over the decades, our food system has done a fine job of sourcing and delivering many types of produce (often out of season) to customers worldwide. Existing methods maximize efficiency by moving large volumes of product through centralized distribution systems. This system is highly streamlined, so much so that food products can be sold relatively inexpensively. But this system is also opaque. This is a problem because many consumers care about what’s in their food and where it comes from. Food producers and distributors are beginning to see that they can market food traceability, and now, they’re incorporating this information into customer outreach. For example, consumers eager to learn more about what’s in their food can participate in the SmartLabel™ program sponsored by the Grocery Manufacturer’s Association. They can scan a product barcode with their smartphone to collect supply chain data at point of sale and decide which foods to buy based on that information.

International Trade

Traceability not only helps the consumer—it can help your business as well, especially if you, like many manufacturers and distributors in the food and beverage industry, are involved in importing food products. 15% of the food consumed in the United States is imported from other countries. The International Standards Organization (ISO) has nearly 1,000 standards that apply specifically to food: many of these are related to manufacturing, labeling, and transportation. Developing a digital system that makes relevant data easy to pull can make complying to these standards easier. If your business does not currently operate on an international scale, having this information already available can help facilitate expansion into international markets. And because the food supply chain is global, knowing the source country of food is also an important factor in preventing contamination and food-related illnesses.

Food Safety

Do you find yourself giving your food a long, hard look before you buy it? If so, you have plenty of company. Consumers, suppliers, and the government are all paying closer attention to the risk of food-related illnesses. Tracing food back to its source is crucial in recalls after an outbreak of food-borne illness. More reporting of product recalls and illnesses makes them seem more prevalent. Whether or not a higher incidence of food health problems is responsible for increased media coverage, there’s no doubt about the market’s response. There’s more demand for documenting where food products have been, how long they have been on the road, and how long they have been stored in warehouses. Domestic food safety policies, like the 2001 Bioterrorism Act and the 2011 Food Modernization and Safety Act, make food traceability a requirement for any US-based business. Tracking the source of each starfruit or head of lettuce is not an impossible task: modern food traceability technology helps distributors do exactly that. Blockchain technology, which powers the digital currency Bitcoin, enables data sharing across a network of individual computers. It has gained popularity worldwide due to its usefulness in recording and keeping track of assets across practically all industries. When applied to the food supply chain, product information such as farm origin details, batch numbers, and other information can be tracked from the field to its final destination.

The Benefits of Transparency

Staying agile in an age of increased data transparency requires thorough documentation, modern warehousing methods, and comprehensive transport monitoring. Each of these requirements for food traceability can be met with proper planning, and the ROI is high. By increasing the visibility of data about sourcing, you’ll be attracting eco- and health-conscious consumers as well as meeting strict food safety regulations. Has your company created a system to improve food traceability? Have you seen results? Let us know in the comments.