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The race to trace: Helping retailers improve food traceability

May 14, 2019
The race to trace: Helping retailers improve food traceability

FOOD traceability supports safety—and a desire from businesses and consumers for more actionable information.

FOOD traceability used to be simple. You wanted to know where the parts of a meal came from? Just look out at the field, orchard or barn. Or at the river, lake or sea. You ate what you raised, grew or caught.

With today’s supply chains, the process is much more complex, and an essential part of safety. With traceability you can track the movement of a product along the chain, from point of origin through to a retailer.

A strong system enables the food industry to act quickly in case of a recall, and pinpoint potential issues and threats in the supply chain. While that’s the main driver, it’s not the only benefit. Traceability data can support key business improvements and decisions, as well as broader consumer confidence and marketing.

“You won’t achieve traceability without proper business processes.”

MIKE HUTSON
SYSPRO Canada

“Getting control of traceability is a competitive advantage,” says Judith Kirkness, partner in Minotaur Software, and author of the book The Traceability Factor.

How and why are food businesses responding?

Part of the imperative is regulatory. The Safe Food for Canadians Regulations (SFCR) require food businesses to track the movement of their goods in the supply chain: one step back to the immediate supplier, and one step forward to the immediate customer (i.e. the next destination). The rules came into force in January 2019, with some requirements being phased in over 12-30 months.

The SFCR’s traceability requirements cover a broad range of food businesses that import, export, distribute, manufacture, sell, etc. This applies to supermarkets, grocery stores, bakeries and butchers. (The requirements don’t apply to food service operations like restaurants, cafeterias, caterers, food trucks and coffee shops.)

In implementing the SFCR, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency decided to focus on desired outcomes rather than how to get there.

“If you’re too prescriptive with requirements, it makes it more difficult to be innovative,” says Aline Dimitri, Executive Director/Deputy Chief Food Safety Officer, at the agency’s Food Safety Science Directorate.

The regulations support product recalls and also demand a preventative control plan. SGS (an inspection, verification, testing and certification company) notes several examples of risks that can be mitigated through enhanced visibility: uncertified supplier facilities, regulatory noncompliances and fraudulent product claims.

Timely responses matter

Mistakes happen. What counts (beyond reducing the odds) is how fast and thoroughly you can respond, says Mike Hutson, a Solution Architect with SYSPRO Canada.

“If you can’t show the steps you take to remediate in a timely manner, your brand takes a hit,” says Hutson, whose firm offers business software solutions for manufacturers and distributors.

The way companies view the challenge is shifting, Hutson suggests. For one, people used to look at traceability in isolation, so felt it could be solved with a given piece of equipment or technology. Now, says Hutson, the goal is to make every aspect of the business work better. In part, traceability becomes a byproduct.

“You won’t achieve traceability without proper business processes,” he says.

“It’s up to the entire food chain to turn up the volume and efforts to openly share information with consumers about food and how it’s produced, processed and packaged.”

CRYSTAL MACKAY
Canadian Centre for Food Integrity

That might involve reducing the number of data entry points, looking at the places where human error tends to occur, and redesigning certain activities and procedures.

Food safety is an essential piece—but just one piece. Even bigger opportunities rest in enhancing processes across the supply chain.

Improving traceability isn’t just a matter of compliance, says Theresa Almonte, Director of Business Development (Food) at SGS Canada. Having a better handle on your suppliers, “gives you an ability to understand your products, processes and protection—that’s good business,” she says.

All sorts of digital and other technologies collect, process and store data related to the supply chain. There are beneficial tools like DNA barcoding and isotope mapping. Some platforms might even offer an eye on everything to do with compliance.

Is blockchain also the answer to improved traceability? Hutson says this shared ledger is a transport mechanism, not a solution in itself. Via blockchain, you can validate that data hasn’t changed during transport, but there’s no standardization yet. “It doesn’t solve traceability; it just ensures you have information,” says Hutson.

In one well-reported pilot project, Walmart and IBM used blockchain to trace a package of mangoes back to a Mexican farm in two seconds instead of close to a week. In this case, they worked with suppliers to capture information at every stage.

With the range of options, and with the SFCR intentionally outcomes-based, it can be hard to know where to start. In a way, that can be a plus. There’s no one-size-fits-all technology answer. Hutson sees an opportunity for companies to create customized solutions that both fit into their processes and add value to other operational areas.

Vanessa Grondin, VP, Global Food & Beverage at Optel (end-to-end traceability tech), says that richer data from supply chains, and increased visibility on them, are invaluable. They help companies to “connect the dots to solve business issues,” she says.

“You can more easily identify trends, start being more efficient in operations and improve overall performance,” says Grondin. “As you have a better understanding of where products are, and the dwell time at each stage, you can more proactively make business decisions.”

Most companies who put in food traceability solutions will probably never go through a product recall, says Jane Proctor, Vice President, Policy and Issue Management, Canadian Produce Marketing Association. That’s not the biggest ROI. “What people have found is that it has given them more depth of knowledge into supply chains. That’s the real benefit that many businesses start to see. It forces you to look more closely at your data,” says Proctor.

“You can’t act on the things that you don’t know,” adds Kirkness.

Trust and transparency can move consumers

Businesses aren’t the only ones seeking reliable information about food sources. In a 2018 survey by the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity (CCFI), 23 per cent of consumers said the food system is on the wrong track. Concerns range from costs to safety to humane treatment of animals.

The survey asked Canadians to rate how different segments of the food system fare in providing open and transparent information about food, enabling informed choices. Most respondents had neutral feelings. The groups with the highest negative ratings: restaurants, food processors/manufacturers, and government agencies.

The CCFI noted that “While there are many great efforts to be transparent and share the story of food in Canada, the collective impact is not being perceived as enough or reaching consumers yet.” The organization said the continued success of the food system depends largely on public trust. “The investment in this area,” they said, “should be considered a core commitment to a business risk and opportunity.”

Crystal Mackay, CCFI’s President, added that “It’s up to the entire food chain to turn up the volume and efforts to openly share information with consumers about food and how it’s produced, processed and packaged.”

The data gleaned from traceability systems can support that type of dissemination at the consumer level.

“If you’re able to offer that granular information, and people want it, you can win a lot of trust,” says Dana McCauley, Associate Director, New Venture Creation, University of Guelph.

And you can win business, too. She says information about the provenance and pedigree of food supports story-based marketing. That can help to move product.

People also don’t just eat for sustenance. They’re often making all sorts of value judgments too with their purchases, about things like health, waste, sustainability, GMOs, animal welfare, treatment of workers, and more. The more that consumers can trace, the better equipped they are to make buying decisions.

Charlebois says safety has dominated food traceability decisions, for good reason. “But food safety never had market currency,” he says. “It’s like selling a seatbelt with the car. People don’t expect to pay more for it.”

The promise of the product in its entirety, in contrast, has currency with consumers. Charlebois says the supply chain can offer powerful information that can go a long way to support a food integrity agenda.

“We’re at the beginning of what these tools can create as a value-add for consumers,” says Grondin. “I think consumers will feel entitled to having product information in real-time.”

Discussions about food traceability don’t exist in a vacuum, says Livingstone. Getting the right system and technology in place is critical. But so are wider debates about who controls the data related to our food, what kind of data is collected, and how it’s shared.

Livingstone says the notion of traceability also raises bigger issues about the food system. She notes that the local food movement, where people are buying closer to the source, shortens the supply chain. That reduces the need for expensive data and connects food consumers more closely with food producers.

What type of food system do we want to invest in? “The challenges that traceability hopes to overcome are valid, but it’s important we ask the questions,” says Livingstone.

Technology, automated data and insight into supply chains raise many questions. For the sake of safety, business efficiencies and consumer power, one thing is sure around food—there’s an appetite for information.

BY STUART FOXMAN

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