Traceability: One Ingredient in a Safe and Efficient Food Supply
Food traceability is in the news?in articles ranging from food safety and bioterrorism to the consumer¡¯s right to know. Recent news stories have focused on tracking cattle from birth to finished product to control the risk of mad cow disease, on tracking food shipments to reduce the risk of tampering, and on traceability systems to inform consumers about food attributes like country of origin, animal welfare, and genetic composition.
Traceability is not only newsworthy, but investment worthy too. Food producers have voluntarily built traceability systems to track the grain in a cereal box to the farm and the apples in a vat of apple juice to the orchard. However, traceability is just one element of any supply-management or quality/safety control system. What exactly is traceability, how does it work, and what can it accomplish? Most important, does the U.S. food supply have enough of it?
Our examination of U.S. food traceability systems involved research into the market studies literature, interviews with industry experts, and site visits in which we interviewed owners, plant supervisors, and/or quality control managers in fruit and vegetable packing and processing plants; beef slaughter plants; grain elevators, mills, and food manufacturing plants; and food distribution centers. In some cases, we accompanied auditors for USDA procurement programs and were shown the firm¡¯s complete traceability records.
The definition of traceability is necessarily broad because food is a complex product and traceability is a tool for achieving a number of different objectives. As a result, no traceability system is complete. Even a hypothetical system for tracking beef?in which consumers scan their packet of beef at the checkout counter and access the animal¡¯s date and location of birth, lineage, vaccination records, and use of mammalian protein supplements?is incomplete. This system does not provide traceability with respect to bacterial control in the barn, use of genetically engineered feed, or animal welfare attributes like hours at pasture and play time.
A system for tracking every input and process to satisfy every objective would be enormous and very costly. Consequently, firms across the U.S. food supply system have developed varying amounts and kinds of traceability. Firms determine the necessary breadth, depth, and precision of their traceability systems depending on characteristics of their production process and their traceability objectives.
describes the amount of information collected. A recordkeeping system cataloging
all of a food¡¯s attributes would be enormous, unnecessary, and expensive. Take,
for example, a cup of coffee. The beans could come from any number of countries;
be grown with numerous pesticides or just a few; be grown on huge corporate organic
farms or small family-run conventional farms; be harvested by children or by machines;
be stored in hygienic or pest-infested facilities; and be decaffeinated using
a chemical solvent or hot water. Few, if any, producers or consumers would be
interested in all this information. The breadth of most traceability systems would
exclude some of these attributes.
Depth is how far back or forward the system tracks the relevant information. For example, a traceability system for decaffeinated coffee would extend back only to the processing stage. A traceability system for fair-trade coffee would extend only to information on price and terms of trade between coffee growers and processors. A traceability system for fair wages would extend to harvest; for shade grown, to cultivation; and for nongenetically engineered, to the bean or seed. For food safety, the depth of the traceability system depends on where hazards and remedies can enter the food production chain. For some health hazards, such as Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE, or mad cow disease), ensuring food safety requires establishing safety measures at the farm. For other health hazards, such as foodborne pathogens, firms may need to establish a number of critical control points along the entire production and distribution chain.
Precision reflects the degree of assurance with which the tracing system can pinpoint a particular food product¡¯s movement or characteristics. In some cases, the objectives of the system will dictate a precise system, while for other objectives a less precise system will suffice. In bulk grain markets, for example, a less precise system of traceability from the elevator back to a handful of farms is usually sufficient because the elevator serves as a key quality control point for the grain supply chain. Elevators clean and sort deliveries by variety and quality, such as protein level. Elevators then blend shipments to achieve a homogeneous quality and to meet sanitation and quality standards. Once blended, only the new grading information is relevant?there is no need to track the grain back to the farm to control for quality problems. Strict tracking and segregation by farm would thwart the ability of elevators to mix shipments for homogeneous product.
Traceability to improve supply management. Industry analysts calculate that during 2000, American companies spent $1.6 trillion on supply-related activities, including the movement, storage, and control of products across the supply chain. The ability to reduce these costs often marks the difference between successful and failed firms. In the food industry, where margins are thin, supply management, including traceability, is an increasingly important area of competition. A firm¡¯s traceability system is key to finding the most efficient ways to produce, assemble, warehouse, and distribute products.
Electronic coding systems, from the granddaddy barcode system to cutting-edge technologies like radio-frequency identification systems, are helping to streamline the U.S. food supply system. As technological innovation drives down the cost of these devices, more firms across the food supply chain are using electronic tracking systems. In some cases, buyers manage these systems to monitor internal supply flow. In others, firms establish systems that link suppliers and buyers, allowing them to automate reordering. Retailers such as Wal-Mart have created proprietary supply-chain information systems, which they require their suppliers to adopt.
Inventory-to-sales ratios are further evidence that U.S. companies are embracing new logistic systems to better control inventory flow. The ratio of private inventories to final sales of domestic business has fallen by half since the end of WWII. The same trend can be observed in many sectors of the domestic food industry, including natural, processed, and imitation cheese; cereal breakfast foods; and soft drinks and carbonated waters. In each case, the inventory-to-sales ratio fell, with the largest decline in the cereal sector, where the ratio fell from over 8 percent in 1958 to 3-4 percent in the early 1990s. This downward trend in inventories reflects growing efficiencies in supply management in the U.S. food industry, including traceability systems. This trend is expected to continue as food manufacturers continue to adopt technologies already in use in other industries.
Traceability for safety and quality control. Traceability systems help firms isolate the source and extent of safety or quality control problems. This helps reduce the production and distribution of unsafe or poor-quality products, which in turn reduces the potential for bad publicity, liability, and recalls. The better and more precise the tracing system, the faster a producer can identify and resolve food safety or quality problems. One surveyed milk processor uniquely codes each item to identify time of production, line of production, place of production, and sequence. With such specific information, the processor can trace faulty product to the minute of production and determine whether other products from the same batch are also defective.
Many buyers, including many restaurants and some grocery stores, now require their suppliers to establish traceability systems and to verify, often through third-party certification, that such systems work. The growth of third-party standards and certifying agencies is helping push the whole food industry?not just those firms that employ third-party auditors?toward documented, verifiable traceability systems.
Traceability to market and differentiate foods. The U.S. food industry is a powerhouse producer of homogeneous bulk commodities such as wheat, corn, soybeans, and meats. Increasingly, the industry is tailoring goods and services to the tastes and preferences of various groups of consumers. Consumers easily spot some of these new attributes?green ketchup is hard to miss. However, other innovations involve credence attributes, characteristics that consumers cannot discern even after consuming the product. Consumers cannot, for example, taste or otherwise distinguish between conventional corn oil and oil made from genetically engineered (GE) corn.
Credence attributes can describe content or process characteristics of the product. Content attributes affect the physical properties of a product, although they can be difficult for consumers to perceive. For example, consumers are unable to determine the amount of isoflavones in a glass of soymilk or the amount of calcium in a glass of enriched orange juice by drinking these beverages.
Process attributes do not affect final product content but refer to characteristics of the production process. Process attributes include country of origin, free-range, dolphin-safe, shade-grown, earth-friendly, and fair-trade. In general, neither consumers nor specialized testing equipment can detect process attributes.
Traceability is an indispensable part of any market for process credence attributes?or content attributes that are difficult or costly to measure. The only way to verify the existence of these attributes is through recordkeeping that establishes their creation and preservation. For example, tuna caught with dolphin-safe nets can only be distinguished from tuna caught using other methods through a recordkeeping system that ties the dolphin-safe tuna to an observer on the boat from which the tuna was caught. Without traceability as evidence of value, no viable market could exist for dolphin-safe tuna, fair-trade coffee, non-biotech corn oil, or any other process credence attribute.
the Private Sector Supply Enough Traceability?
Firms use traceability systems together with a host of other management, marketing, and safety/quality control tools to achieve their objectives. The dynamic interplay of the costs and benefits of these tools has spurred different rates of investment in traceability across sectors?and continues to do so. Observers of this mish-mash of traceability may conclude that such variation is an indication of inadequacy. It is more accurately an indication of efficiency, the result of a careful balancing of costs and benefits coordinated by relative prices.
All of this is not to argue that companies always invest in the socially optimal amount of traceability. In some instances, the private costs and benefits of traceability may not be the same as the social costs and benefits. There are circumstances where market incentives could lead to less traceability than is desirable for product differentiation or for food safety. Both industry and government have a number of options to help correct this market failure.
To Enhance Traceability
Government may also require that firms producing foods with credence attributes substantiate their claims through mandatory traceability systems. For example, the Government requires that firms producing organic foods verify the claim. If firms are not required to prove that credence attributes exist, some may try to gain price premiums by passing off standard products as products with credence attributes.
One difficulty with mandatory traceability proposals is that they often fail to differentiate between valuable quality attributes, those for which verification is needed, and less valuable attributes for which no verification is needed. For example, though consumers may desire verification that organic foods are indeed organic, no such verification is necessary for conventionally produced foods. There is no potential for fraud in the case of conventional foods, no danger that producers would try to cheat consumers by misidentifying organic products as conventional ones. Likewise, there is no danger that producers would try to cheat consumers by selling non-GE (genetically engineered) soybeans as GE soybeans.
In cases where markets do not supply enough traceability for food safety traceback, a number of industry groups have developed food safety and traceback standards. For example, the California cantaloupe industry has incorporated traceability requirements in their marketing order to monitor food safety practices. In addition, buyers in every sector are increasingly relying on contracting, vertical integration, or associations to improve product traceability and facilitate the verification of safety and quality attributes. For example, many hog operations are now integrated by ownership or contractually connected to slaughtering firms. As a result, identification by herd or batch is much easier today than 50 years ago.
Government may also consider mandating traceability to increase food safety, but this may impose inefficiencies on already efficient private traceability systems. The widespread voluntary adoption of traceability complicates the application of a centralized system because firms have developed so many different approaches and systems of tracking. If mandatory systems do not allow for variations in traceability systems, they will likely end up forcing firms to make adjustments to already efficient systems or creating parallel systems.
Other policy options give firms incentives to strengthen their safety and traceability systems without requiring any specific process for achieving these objectives. For example, standards for mock recall speed (in which firms must prove that they can locate and remove all hypothetically contaminated food from the food supply within a certain amount of time) give firms the freedom to develop efficient traceback systems while ensuring that such systems satisfy social objectives.
Policy aimed at increasing the cost of distributing unsafe foods, such as fines or plant closures, or policies that increase the probability of catching unsafe food producers, such as increased safety testing or foodborne illness surveillance, will also provide firms with incentives to strengthen their traceability systems. When the cost of distributing unsafe food goes up, so, too, do the benefits of traceability systems.
One area where industry has no incentive to create traceability systems is for tracking food once it has been sold and consumed. No firm has an incentive to monitor the health of the Nation¡¯s consumers in order to speed the detection of unsafe product. Government-supplied systems for monitoring the incidence of foodborne illness, such as FoodNet and PulseNet, are one option for helping close this gap in the food system¡¯s traceability network. Foodborne illness surveillance systems increase the capability of the entire food supply chain to respond to food safety problems before they grow and affect more consumers.
article draws from the ongoing research of ERS's Traceability Team.
Is food safety an economic weapon?
06/04/2004 - Strict hygiene standards are increasingly being used by the west to block food imports from developing economies, according to researchers in Thailand, India and Australia. They claim that rich countries are using consumer fears of tainted food as an excuse to bypass international free trade agreements, writes Anthony Fletcher.
The bird flu
epidemic in Asia is a good example. According to a trade negotiator at the Thai
commerce ministry, the outbreak provided the EU with the perfect excuse to protect
the bloc¡¯s powerful meat sector. "The rich food importers are getting better
and better at manufacturing safety hazards - real and imagined," the official
told the Financial Times.
"We must all remain vigilant and member states must ensure that the import ban is fully respected at ports and airports," said European Commissioner for health and consumer protection David Byrne. "Our ban is designed to keep the disease out of Europe so that neither our citizens nor poultry stocks should be at risk."
But Professor Bhanupong Nidhiprabha, a member of the team studying safety standards in the food trade, said that rich countries are simply finding they can draw up arbitrary safety standards then ban imports, saying it is their sovereign right. This reflects the unfair balance of power in food production. The leading 10 food producers are all developing countries, while the main markets are the European Union, the US and Japan.
In addition, western countries are using super-sensitive technology to detect contaminants in food imports from developing countries. This, claims Saknarong Utsahakul, director of planning and research at the Food Institute of Thailand, is unfair.
"Our food industry is facing a critical situation,¡± he told the UK¡¯s Financial Times. ¡°Food is now tested for chemical parts per billion - we're getting to the point where they'll find something undesirable in everything if they want to.¡±
Many Asian nations objected to the EU¡¯s ban on prawn and chicken imports after detecting traces of nitrofluran and chloramphenicol, the prohibited veterinary drugs. They claim that extremely sensitive machines can detect antibiotics at lower levels than sometimes found in European food.
But after a week of denials and perhaps months of cover-ups in Thailand over the existence of Avian flu in the country, the EU believes it has a duty to protect its consumers. Right up until the outbreak was admitted, senior ministers were claiming that Thailand had ¡°never¡± seen a case of avian flu. Cabinet members even enjoyed a lunch featuring various chicken dishes to prove that the meat was safe for consumption, an event broadcast live on national television.
The denials, and subsequent revelation that Thailand may have had the virus for some time, has raised serious questions about the safety and quality of Thailand¡¯s food industry, a major exporter to the EU.
The EU¡¯s meat industry is certainly not impressed. ¡°I¡¯m not that surprised,¡± British Poultry Council chief executive Peter Bradnock told FoodProductionDaily.com in February. ¡°It confirms the suspicions of several experts that the country may have had this virus for some time. It is regrettable that proper control methods were not in place. But what guarantees can the Thai government give that problems affecting other food exports are not being covered up? This is a wider concern that needs to be addressed.¡±
More Collaborative Efforts Needed to Increase Consumer Understanding of Nutrition and Food Safety, Says NFPA
(Washington , D.C.) In response to the publication of a report by the National Academies of Science, titled ¡°Exploring a Vision: Integrating Knowledge for Food and Health,¡± Dr. Rhona Applebaum, Executive Vice President and Chief Science Officer for the National Food Processors Association (NFPA), made the following comments:
¡°Many of the suggestions in this report including the promotion of greater nutrition and food safety awareness, integrating food-health research with behavioral studies, and beginning nutrition education in early childhood reflect recommendations NFPA has long made. NFPA believes that increased communication, collaboration, and cooperation is needed among all stakeholders including government, industry, academia, public health professionals and societies, and consumers on various research and educational activities.
¡°Behavioral studies and early childhood nutrition and food safety education are particularly important. In comments to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and to the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, which is now considering revisions to the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans , NFPA has strongly advocated a greater role for behavioral research in issues related to diet and health, as well as education targeted to all consumers, especially school age children as part of the education curriculum.
¡°Consumer education activities must place an emphasis on messages that are clear, understandable, and that actually motivate consumers to create safe and healthful diets and lifestyles. The ¡®Calories count¡¯ message now being emphasized by FDA in its Action Plan to address obesity represents just such an approach to communicating the basics of nutrition and weight management to consumers. FDA also has emphasized that nutrition labeling, found on virtually all processed foods, can help consumers to make food choices that will assist in creating healthful diets.
¡°It is important to note that the food industry provides a variety of foods to meet a wide range of nutritional needs and lifestyles. All foods can be part of a healthful diet; the key is to help consumers understand that there is no ¡®magic bullet.¡¯ The only ¡®magic¡¯ that exists is in selecting a diet that is balanced, varied, and moderate, coupled with a good dose of physical activity. We need to do a better job of explaining how this decades-old nutrition tenet can best resonate with today¡¯s consumers. Consumers need more education on how to eat, not what to eat
¡°Just as we believer there is no single solution to increasing consumers¡¯ understanding of nutrition and food safety, NFPA also does not believe that a single ¡®champion¡¯ to promote awareness of the interdependence of food and health, as suggested in this report, is the correct approach. Greater collaborative efforts involving all stakeholders rather than emphasizing one individual ? are far more likely to result in heightened and sustained consumer awareness and successful outcomes on issues dealing with nutrition and food safety.¡±
NFPA is the voice of the food
processing industry on scientific and public policy issues involving food safety,
food security, nutrition, technical and regulatory matters and consumer affairs.
AFNOR Stamp of Approval for Listeria Rapid Test
The Oxoid Listeria Rapid Test (OLRT) has been successfully revalidated by the internationally recognised French accreditation body, AFNOR.
Providing a negative result 3-5 days earlier, and a confirmed positive result up to a day earlier than the reference culture method (NF EN ISO 11290-1), OLRT saves valuable time in the detection of Listeria in food products and is being used successfully in food laboratories around the world.
No matter what time of day the procedure is set up, results are available early on the third day - as little as 43 hours from sample receipt - allowing negative samples to be eliminated at the earliest opportunity.
In this latest evaluation by AFNOR, OLRT demonstrated 97.5% accuracy and 100% reliability when compared to the reference culture method. It was reported that this test could save time, particularly if the majority of samples are negative.
can be used to test a wide range of foods, including meat, seafood, vegetables
and dairy products, for the presence of Listeria. The speed and convenience of
this method also facilitates the regular checking of hygiene procedures at every
stage of the food production environment. The rapid
Produce Tops Food Poisoning Culprit
Although produce was responsible for the most individual cases of food-borne illness, seafood was responsible for the largest number of outbreaks. Fish can harbor naturally occurring toxins, such as scombrotoxin or ciguatoxin, while shellfish can play host to microbial hazards such as Vibrio bacteria or Noroviruses. CSPI has long urged the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to increase its inspections of seafood processors, to implement testing programs, and to ban the sale of untreated Gulf Coast oysters during the summer months.
Poultry, beef, and eggs caused roughly the same number of outbreaks and illnesses. As with produce, CSPI says much of the problem can be traced back to the farm. For instance with poultry and eggs, reducing crowding and increasing testing of flocks can help control Salmonella.
"No federal agency with food-safety responsibilities focuses on farms," DeWaal said. "A single food safety agency, with new emphasis on improving on-farm practices, could help reduce many foodborne hazards and eliminate others altogether."
From 1990 to 2003, CSPI¡¯s
outbreak alert! found that
Besides pushing for a single food-safety agency and on-farm improvements, CSPI recommends that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) continue to improve its reporting and surveillance of food-borne illness outbreaks.
Associates of Cape Cod, Inc. Receives FDA Approval to Manufacture at New Facility
Associates of Cape Cod, Inc. (ACC), the leading manufacturer of endotoxin and beta-glucan detection products and a major supplier to the pharmaceutical and medical device industries, today announced that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has granted approval to manufacture two of the Company's most prominent products at its new Falmouth Technology Park facility.
These two products, Pyrotell(R) 5 mL gel-clot reagent and Pyrotell-T(R) turbidimetric reagent, are used for release testing of injectable drugs, biologicals and medical devices for bacterial endotoxin contamination.
The Company's new state-of-the-art facility is designed specifically for the manufacture of Horseshoe Crab blood extract, or Limulus Amebocyte Lysate (LAL), reagents and associated products.
Submission for the approval of manufacturing of ACC's other licensed products at the new facility will be proposed to the FDA shortly.
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Associates of Cape Cod, Inc.
Food Safety Informaiton
Unpasteurized Milk Has Fans Despite Risk
By IRA DREYFUSS, Associated Press Writer
Va. - Like most moms, Cathy Fairbairn makes sure her kids get lots of milk. Nine-year-old
Corinne and 7-year-old Ryan love the stuff. It also is unpasteurized.
"If you're open to it, you cross this line and then you're part of the other culture," Fairbairn said.
In their books and Web sites, raw milk advocates say that health officials and doctors are narrow-minded bacteria-phobes. One site ? www.rawmilk.org ? calls nonpasteurized milk "the only healthy milk."
Fairbairn, who came to raw milk in 2000 by attending seminars and reading articles about it, said ordinary milk drinkers "have been fed a line." The practice also fits a back-to-the-roots lifestyle. Fairbairn, for example, grinds her own grain for the bread she bakes. Natural foods are healthier because they follow the "traditional diets of our ancestors," she said.
Doctors and health officials do not accept the raw milk argument. "We continue to see outbreaks of foodborne illnesses associated with the consumption of raw milk every year," said John Sheehan, director of the Food and Drug Administration (news - web sites)'s division of dairy and egg safety. Unpasteurized milk can be breeding grounds for food poisoning bacteria such as campylobacter, E. coli and salmonella, as well as forms of tuberculosis that can be transmitted from cattle to people.
Fairbairn said her family has not gotten sick. Also, some experts say raw milk is not uniformly dangerous. Sanitary handling from farm to delivery can keep the risk of bacteria down, said Rusty Bishop, director of the Center for Dairy Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
"It's amazing how clean milk is when you look at where it comes from," Bishop said. "If God had done it right, he would have put the teats at the other end of the cow."
Bishop does not drink raw milk. Pasteurization is good health insurance, and the odds of disease can catch up with people who regularly drink raw milk, he said. Countries where more raw milk is consumed have higher rates of food poisoning traced to it, he said.
In the United States, the FDA forbids interstate transportation of raw milk packaged for retail sale, but 28 states allow sales within the state's borders, Sheehan said. Virginia is not one of the 28, but Fairbairn said she and about 40 other families in northern Virginia have found a way to get their milk anyway. To avoid having to buy milk, they banded together in a loose co-op that owns shares in Jersey cows at Hedgebrook Farm, a small dairy operation near Winchester, Va., in the Shenandoah Valley.
Each $60 share in the "cow boarding" system entitles the owner to one gallon of milk a week. Shareholders pay for the upkeep of the cows and home delivery of the milk at $15 per month per share. The farm's owner, Kitty Hockman-Nicholas, said the milk winds up costing them around $4 per gallon.
It is more trouble than driving to the supermarket for milk. But raw milk advocates say the health benefits are worth it.They say pasteurization reduces heat-sensitive vitamins such as vitamin C and thiamin and changes some of milk's calcium into a form that is more difficult for the body to use.
Health and dairy experts acknowledge that raw milk advocates have a point in their claim that pasteurization changes the taste of milk. Pasteurization's heat cooks a slightly sweeter taste into milk, but it is hard to notice, Bishop said.
In this reporter's taste test in Fairbairn's kitchen, pasteurized milk bought at a local supermarket was a little sweeter, although the milk from the farm's jerseys tasted just a little creamier.
Another taste tester, however, had a stronger opinion. Holding a glass of the product he has been drinking for most of his life, young Ryan Fairbairn declared, "This is the real milk."