As part of our ongoing expert Q&A series, a conversation with Paul Chang, who leads the Serialization/Traceability initiative at IBM, on how traceability can revolutionize global food safety

Part I

How will your new traceability partnership with the government of Thailand impact agriculture–and how will it impact consumers?

A: The main significance of this announcement is that IBM is partnering with a government entity. The Thai Ministry of Agriculture is interested in promoting its products as being high quality and safe products, primarily for the export market. So the government is investing and collaborating with industry in order to deploy certain types of technology that will demonstrate the high quality and safety of their products.

In Thailand, the interesting thing is that the government that acquired the technology is allocating it to three different industries: one of the pilots will be mangoes, the other a chicken processor, and the third will be seafood, all of those are large export businesses for Thailand. This gives Thailand tremendous opportunity in the global trade world. If there’s a recall or if there’s an outbreak, they will be able to track it and pinpoint it to the source quickly, and trace it forward to notify different customers who may have purchased this product. I think it really sets Thailand a part form the rest of the world as far as their assurance that the products they produce are high quality and safe.

Q: Is this system new, or is this similar to existing traceability programs?

A: It’s relatively new. It’s currently being utilized in the pharmaceutical industry to track individual bottles of drugs throughout the supply chain. It’s taking that same concept over to the food side. Traditionally, products are tracked one up, one down and tracked generally at a lot level. This system essentially takes it down a couple of notches so its now going to be able to track at a case level and perhaps even at the unit level, depending on what the product is. It’s full, complete supply chain visibility instead of the traditional one up, one down.

Q: By the government implementing this, is the cost of implementing the system not falling on farmers? You often hear those in the food business voicing concerns about the cost of traceability systems…

A: This is significant in a couple of ways. The fact that the government is actively engaged means that it is an important issue, not just for the Thai government, but for the U.S. and other governments. Right now Thailand has the capability of sharing granular traceability information with its customers. So, I think that’s significant. The cost of the system is probably one of the more misunderstood areas out there.

The information could actually be captured by using a simple smartphone device. You don’t need a heavy infrastructure; you just need a mobile device and access to the internet, that’s how you would capture that information. On the flip side, on the consumer side, you can also get the information by using a smartphone with access to the internet. There are some applications out there where you simply scan the barcode of any product and you basically ping the cloud and the cloud downloads all of the information about that particular product onto your smartphone. I think a lot of folks have a great misunderstanding about what the system looks like, how complicated it is, how expensive it is… it’s actually very simple. By and large, the internet is essentially doing all of the heavy platform work of capturing and pushing data to where it needs to go.

Q: So walk me through how this works. Producers just input certain bits of information into the system? How does it go from ground level up?

A: There are various ways to deploy this. I’ll describe one of them, the simpler way. Each physical location has a GS1 number called a GLN (Global Location Number). This number identifies a certain physical property so a farmer could enter that information or they could scan a barcode that represents that location number. Then any product from that location, as it’s moving through a processing center, the location number is kept in the system so that when a U.S. retailer sees a case of mangoes they can scan that code and they would be able to have information on the location of the farm, when the mango was harvested, where it was processed, whether it was maintained at the proper temperature, etc. All of that information would be readily available for the customer.

Some companies have deployed more sophisticated systems. They would actually use reusable containers with a unique code and scan the barcode on the container and that scanner also has GPS capability, so the XY coordinates of where that container was when the product was harvested is captured, all the way through the supply chain.

See Food Safety News tomorrow for Part II of our discussion on traceability.