If I had spent any more time at the Traceability Interoperability Summit in Denver, my head would have exploded.

Having so many smart people gathered in one place–all with solutions to the same problem–does that to me.  I think it’s fair to say that the “food safety community” has not appreciated how complex it is to make food traceable up and down the supply chain.

Little did I realize that there are serious people in government and industry who are trying to decide what is the last most important bit of information to include on a barcode–the lot number or sell by date?

Nor had I really thought about who has the power to make traceability interoperability happen.  As one of the speakers said:  “Government wields a rubber bat, while retailers wield a metal bat.”

In other words, any food maker who falls behind on government mandates on traceability whenever that happens will be given more time and multiple chances.  But when the retailer in the future refuses your shipments because they are not traceable, there is no appeal and no money in the future for you.

With the produce industry preparing for that day with the Produce Traceability Initiative, there was some talk at the summit that it’s the retailers who might not be taking all of this seriously enough and who might not be ready to roll by the 2012 target date.

One summit participant also spoke of interviews with Chief Executive Officers and Chief Technology Officers of the “top 12” food companies.  At the outset, all were confident they had traceability for the products from their specific companies.  But by the end of the interviews, they realized they did not.

Some might say the Traceability Institute LLC, which organized the summit, raises a pretty high bar for “traceability interoperability.  Miodrag Mitic, managing partner of the Traceability Institute, says true traceability must have these elements: a unique ID, record keeping, timely correlation of records, ability to issue comprehensive reports, and interoperability.

That last one is basically whether my network can talk with your network.  In a global food market, it’s not likely everyone is going to be using the same systems, but those systems are going to have to be able to communicate.

How all this gets worked out when so many different companies, countries, and trading blocks are involved is what the challenge is all about.  Government action will help, whether its with the “guidance” for the meat and poultry industries, or the regulations the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will likely issue after Congress passes a new food safety law with specific traceability requirements for FDA-regulated companies.

But make no mistake.

Whether it be by rubber bat or metal bat, traceability is going to be the new game for the food industry.  When foodborne outbreaks do occur, we are not finding the source fast enough.

Only by having the most accurate information available quicker can we reduce public exposure and quickly come up with the cause of an outbreak.

We won’t give up on that, no matter how complex the problem.