Do You Know Where Your Food Comes From?

For years, the term “food traceability” has permeated the media, and there has been a greater emphasis on consumers’ right to know where their food comes from.

With the high profile of foodborne illness outbreaks that caused the infamous case of Stephanie Smith, a 22-year-old girl who was left paralyzed after eating an E. coli-contaminated hamburger produced by Cargill and the Peanut Corporation of America’s demise after its products were determined to be the source of a nationwide Salmonella outbreak that sickened hundreds, and the weekly litany of food recalls for contamination with pathogenic bacteria, allergens, or for other causes, consumers are paying more attention to the origins of their food.

With this in mind, Food Safety News set out to learn more about food trace back and traceability. We spoke with representatives from Scoring Ag, HarvestMark, Top Ten Produce, Recall InfoLink, and HCL Technologies about what they’re doing to help the food industry trace products from farm to consumer. We’ll be featuring an interview with each in this series on traceability.

Recall InfoLink

apples barcodes feature.jpgAfter spending years in the food industry, working with various companies and federal agencies, CEO of Recall InfoLink Roger Hancock became intimate with the distribution, retail, manufacturing, and governmental operations side of recalls. Using his past experience, Hancock took the differing perspectives and put it together in an online system called Recall InfoLink.

“I made a system that makes notifications and responses to all the companies’ trading partners,” says Hancock. “The trading partners then can take that message and they can customize it and they can notify additional trading partners through successive integrations through the supply chain.”

Recall InfoLink is a business-to-business message for processing recall events, Hancock says.  Through this system, individual businesses can notify their trading partners with the pertinent information that will help remove a product from sale to protect customers, whether they are other businesses or the consuming public. Recall InfoLink aids in documenting these actions.

“The system is set up so that whatever level in the supply chain you are–whether you’re a manufacturer, processor, wholesaler, consolidator, retailer, the government, or the public–the information that you receive when you log in to the system is the information that is consistent with your interaction with your supplier.” Recall InfoLink stores the data that clients input into it.

In case of a recall, Recall InfoLink allows individuals to attach a press release if available, provide talking points and point of sale fines to their customers, include a description of the product (with specific item number), and object information for his or her trading partners. Those trading partners are then notified through a variety of communication channels, including text messaging, e-mailing, phone, or fax, says Hancock.

It doesn’t stop there.  The trading partners can go on the system and upload their customer alerts to continue the recall notification out to additional customers. “You get the cascading saturation of the marketplace with appropriate recall information, depending on what level on the supply chain you are participating in,” explains Hancock.

It is essential that the recalling company provide its trading partners with an appropriate sense of urgency, the reason behind the recall, and what is expected of them in the way that they handle the contaminated product on a going-forward basis.

“People receive all the recall information that needs to be tailored to them and the businesses that they’re operating in,” says Hancock. “There are business specifics in addition to the recall specifics.”

Recall InfoLink is exactly what its name sets it out to be–a connection, or a link, between those involved in the food channel, in regards to a recall. “We provide a seamless platform with all segments of a supply chain all the way to the consumer,” says Hancock. “Our job is to provide the right information at the right time, so the right action can be taken with respect to a recall, regardless of the position you hold in the food chain.”

In order to receive notifications of a recall and respond to it, there is no cost, there is no membership requirement, and there is no fee. If you want to use the system to automate and track your notification process and the responses, there is also no cost, Hancock says. If you want to use the system to notify your trading partners and track their responses, however, then you pay a per customer rate.

“Companies save up to 80 percent of the labor that’s required to go through the whole customer notification, documentation, response, credit, and re-supply process,” says Hancock.

Much like the other three systems, Recall InfoLink also works instantly. “The first reason that Recall InfoLink exists is to speed up the process for companies notifying their trading partners and documenting that notification and response so that recall can happen faster,” says Hancock. “On the business side, it protects companies’ brands. On the consumer side, it increases consumer confidence.”

Although the clients are in control of the information they put into the database, there is a boundary between the information that gets publicized and that that stays confidential. Recall InfoLink ensures that the recalling company is in control and thus, can decide what information to provide and to whom. The system allows for individual companies to get specific information for their company, instead of a global announcement, Hancock says.

The second level of control exists in the security that is available in the system, which prevents people from seeing information that isn’t for their eyes. And, though an archive does remain in the system, the information remains unavailable unless an individual has been linked to the recall. People also have the ability to go back and give reports, view how long it took for people to respond, and more, explains Hancock.

According to Denis Stearns, a partner in the Marler Clark law firm and professor at the Seattle University School of Law, it is a tug-of-war between consumers’ right to have information about the food they are consuming and readily accessible data that is available for specific eyes only. “You don’t want your competitors to know who your suppliers are,” says Stearns. “The flipside of it is consumers, especially when there’s an outbreak going on. I think that’s where the tension comes in.”

While some might argue the fact that there may be inaccuracy in the businesses’ contact information, Recall InfoLink’s system takes care of that. “Our system has a way to update your contact information,” says Hancock. “That updated information gets shared directly with your suppliers.”

According to Hancock, Recall InfoLink hopes to soon incorporate a method that will allow people to register for recall alerts with geography and product category, by simply inputting a zip code and item. This will help consumers
receive notification in case of a recall in their area.  But, for now, Recall InfoLink connects trading partners up and down the food chain in a quick, efficient manner