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.

HCL Technologies and the Technology Behind Traceability

As the director of solution development at HCL Technologies, a global software services company, Ravi Sankar spends his time developing solutions and providing IT support for companies. Most recently, HCL has built two kinds of solutions–one more prevalent across the board, and the other more unique–in case of food contamination.

When food becomes contaminated, every company is responsible for trying to identify where they have that item within their purview, Sankar says. HCL Technologies helps these individuals and companies keep track of their product as it moves in and out of the various suppliers.

“One of the things that I discovered is that when you look at the food channel from farm all the way to fork, what happens is the food product undergoes multiple movements and transformations,” says Sankar. “And, what happens as a consequence of these transformations is if you’re way up on the channel or way down, you don’t have visibility into what is happening upstream or downstream, so it becomes very hard.”

lemons-traceability-featured.jpgBecause of this, a number of SKUs come into play–more items, more entities–all while companies are still required to track them all down, explains Sankar. “It becomes very difficult to do this in an automated manner,” he said.  “One of the things that we have is a framework for helping connect up these companies up and down on the value chain.”

With information provided by the companies, individuals are able to instantly view where on the chain the products are located. “We’ve built an extensive solution that basically hooks up multiple small solutions, so it provides an integrated view through the pipelines,” says Sankar.

The major problem HCL is facing is from the receiving end. “We’re trying to talk to the industry groups to have them send us the information,” says Sankar. “We have the framework, we just don’t have these companies sending us the information yet.”

The system requires transactional data, which is the information coming in from each record as it happens in all the various companies.  It also mandates that a separate master file of the relationships established is available.

There are thousands of SKUs and combinations that are being sold and transferred through the food chain, and problems with maintaining accuracy arise when not all the information in the database is entered in a timely manner, says Sankar. As the number of transactions increase in the system, however, the more accurate and comprehensive an analysis and response becomes.

In terms of how cost effective the HCL framework is, it is a few pennies per palette, Sankar said. For now, however, companies don’t see any benefit or added value that they can get with the investment they would make.

“What [companies] are getting is a kind of insurance policy, but they feel that they already have a certain amount of insurance with the system they currently have in place,” guesses Sankar. “This is just an additional layer, so they’re a little reluctant to the spend the money at all.”

Sankar also believes that many are merely waiting for food safety legislation to pass. “One reason why they’re waiting is because they want to actually see what the legislation says,” explains Sankar.  “The fact that some legislation is coming is actually freezing everybody.”

While HCL has created a solution for food trace back, the company primarily focuses on helping companies manage their whole IT system, integrating various subsidiaries within that business, in a holistic manner.  “We are experts at integration, cleaning up data, and making sure we get all of the right data out,” says Sankar.

The HCL framework system also ensures that there is a certain amount of confidentiality in the information that is visible to the public. Currently, the system has two levels of permission, where individuals can look at their own information, “one up or one down,” as Sankar calls it.

There is also a holistic view that only the administrator has access to in case of a recall. “Right now our system allows you to either only look at your data or the whole data,” says Sankar. “Who has permission to what information that is not yours–that’s something that each person has to give permission for you to view.”

The Future of our Food

“We’re going to have traceability in everything that we do,” predicts Kanitz.  S. 510, the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, which should go to the Senate floor after the August recess, can change food traceability standards for everyone involved in the industry. “We need the ability to trace from every angle–frontward and backwards–to prove the attributes and say, ‘this wasn’t falsified,'” says William Kanitz, President of Scoring Ag.

According to Elliot Grant, founder of HarvestMark, traceability is also inevitable. “There’s so much pressure to implement traceability, just for food safety at the case level alone,” says Grant. “It’s not a flashing fad.  It’s definitely coming.”  Although consumers, growers, distributors, wholesalers, retailers, and everyone else up and down the food chain are unsure where the future for traceability lies, Grant says that the future is exciting.

“Traceability is your way to interact with the consumer,” says Grant. “It gives the consumer a way to interact with the grower, provide information that was never available before and will make everybody better. It will make everybody more efficient for quality and freshness.”

Grant hopes that traceability reaches the extent where the consumer can walk into a grocery store and feel more connected to people who are growing their food. “Traceability might not be the right word. It’s really about transparency,” says Grant. “And, that’s something we should all feel very excited about.”

He expects the government to mandate traceability on food–not at item level–in the next couple of years.

For John Bailey of Top Ten Produce, the future for traceability lies in social media. “By using the bar code on the item for the purposes of transparency between the grower and the consumer; that’s the future of traceability,” says Bailey. “When you’re dealing with fresh food and real people, you’re going to connect people to people. And, that’s where the value is going to come out.”

For Bailey, it is this transparency factor that provides the benefit. “In my opinion, in five years, it will be a requirement to do business with traditional retail,” predicts Bailey. “If your produce isn’t traceable, you don’t sell it in any retail store.”

According to Roger Hancock, CEO of Recall InfoLink, the transparency about product origins is going to increase as consumer demand rises. “The end point will be increasing transparency across the supply chain all the way to the consumer, while the consumer has greater visibility of the origins of the prod

For HCL Technologies, the future for food traceability is looking bright, says Sankar. “I think this is a great benefit to the end consumer because this empowers the consumer to know that the food channel has built in some safety features to identify the source of contamination much faster,” says Sankar. “And, all this information flow will reduce the time taken to do all this from days or weeks of identifying and tracing the problem to hours or even minutes depending on the extent of the problem.”

This is where Sankar sees traceability evolving.

While the others remain optimistic about the future of traceability, there are some like Denis Stearns, a partner in the Marler Clark law firm and Seattle University professor, who remain skeptical.

“I think the future is continued industry resistance and skepticism,” says Stearns. “It’s going to continue to be driven by the public health needs at any given time.”

According to Stearns’ predictions, companies view record keeping as a cost with inadequate corresponding benefit. Any improvement, Stearns says, will come from the USDA, FDA, and United States legislature.

“It’s probably as good as it’s going to get on a voluntary basis by and large,” he guesses. “Any further improvement is going to require laws and regulations being passed to require different things.”

While there are a number of systems and technologies competing to cure this problem of tracing back contaminated food in a fast and efficient manner, a strict, rigid standardized system of traceability still seems a bit out of reach for others. “I believe in a free market system,” says Bailey.

So for now, there remain various technologies and frameworks to help in the case of recall, increase relations between the consumer and producer, and maintain food safety up and down the food chain.