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.
Coping with Information Overload
“I’ve stopped eating red meat because I really don’t know what it’s in it anymore, or where it’s coming from,” said one 23-year-old consumer from Manhattan, who preferred to remain nameless for this story. And, more now than ever, consumers are demanding the right to information about the food they are consuming.
In the modern era, where foodborne illness outbreaks have occurred, distrust is created between the consumers and producers, lawyer Denis Stearns, a partner in the Marler Clark law firm and a professor at Seattle University School of Law, suggests. Unlike in the past, where face-to-face transactions dominated the way people exchanged food, consumers today have a smaller connection to where their food is coming from.
As the food distribution system has evolved, technology has hindered the progression of food trace back systems. Over the years, however, technology has slowly caught up, changing and developing to improve traceability.
“It’s a whole supply chain that exists. It’s not just one or two entities that are involved in this,” says Ravi Sankar of HCL Technologies. “That’s why it has always been very difficult in the past to pull this information together.” Today, technology has advanced so that individuals can build interfaces into different systems and collect trace back information with little to no difficulty, explains Sankar.
Because the volume of transactions between the number of items and suppliers is also quite large today, Sankar suggests that policies should be required to ensure that the only vital information is recorded to avoid overload. “Information storage has become more inexpensive as time has gone on,” says Sankar. “In the past, that would have been a big barrier.”
To aid in providing consumers with peace of mind, various businesses and companies are pooling their forces and creating different technologies and management data systems that can trace back food to its origin. These companies are utilizing the available technology to ensure not only the public’s health, but also making certain that the suppliers along the food chain, whether it be the retailer, the wholesaler, the distributor, or even the producer, are protected as well.
“Food safety is about communicating between the farmer, the trucker, the distributor and everybody in that food chain saying, ‘I did a very good job getting that produce to you in a clean form,'” says the President of ScoringAg, William Kanitz. “And, that’s what ScoringAg does.”
ScoringAg is an online record-keeping system that hoards data for a wide host of products. “It can handle any product on the face of this earth, including food machinery,” says Kanitz. It provides an easily understandable, instant, and inexpensive trace back system that can help in case of a recall.
To search a product’s origin and profile, registered users must enter a barcode, RFID, or SSI-EID–internal tracking codes–which are all printed on the item itself. According to Kanitz, in the case of a meat product, the animal’s origin, picture, tag, vaccination dates, feed, certifications, any slaughter tests received, and/or other additional information the handler chooses to incorporate appears on the product’s online profile. ScoringAg is a database that backs up labeling, Kanitz says.
Every individual involved in the food channel–retailers, suppliers, wholesalers, growers, distributors, consumers, and more can use ScoringAg information. “It actually creates a link between [people],” says Kanitz. “Everyone along the way can know that they can see the attributes, they can see the variety, they can see when it was planted, or who it was certified by.”
The web-based system is an empty database that virtually anyone can sign in and take over themselves. ScoringAg is also available in English, Spanish, and Portuguese. And, French and German translations are in the process of being created, according to Kanitz.
What ScoringAg prides itself on is the immediacy and real-time in which the system works. “Whether you have the smallest farmer in the world or the poorest farmer in the world, they all have almost the same speed as someone like our mega farms that we have today,” says Kanitz.
The trace back happens quickly–in not 24 hours, not 48 hours, but seconds, according to Kanitz. “When somebody needs information, they need to look at that information and asses it to make a purchasing decision immediately,” continues Kanitz. “It benefits everyone along the chain because it erupts in real-time.”
This system is cost effective, too. Anyone can purchase ScoringAg records for $10, depending on the volume of entities, the volume of locations, the volume of pictures and/or video that you’re using, Kanitz mentions.
According to Kanitz, ScoringAg has the cheapest labeling system there is with $0.0025 for a trace back code to stick on a product. ScoringAg is the lowest cost operating trace back system worldwide, he says. “You don’t need an exorbitant cost to have a traceability system,” says Kanitz. “You need some common sense and the right equipment. You can have a complete trace back system for a low cost or you can have a partial system for an expensive cost, the way I see it. The low cost system will always win.”
Consumers can access ScoringAg, but they receive a public version of the records that don’t include the grower’s name, unless the grower chooses to include that information. “The same we protect our growers and shippers and retailers and wholesalers, we have to protect that information,” Kanitz says. “In this case here, there’s a certain amount of risk and people need to know they can go to a place and there’s products and you can see more attributes about them.”
What makes this system unique, Kanitz says, is that ScoringAg is not a traceability system, but a trace back system. “The starting record stays intact from the original starting point to the final destination and the consumer can see the public part of the record, including picture and video, if uploaded,” says Kanitz. According to Kanitz, ScoringAg provides complete trace back up and down, not just a portion of the traceability. “One-step up and one-step down trace back systems are proven inadequate in case of a recall,” he says.
According to a recent article published in Fresh Plaza, ScoringAg is the only system that facilitates all worldwide partners in the food chain to upload from their internal sys
tems, trace back relevant data, and move it efficiently to the next supplier within the chain.
ScoringAg also can provide item level, case, and bin trace back with records for all agricultural products–raw, processed, or commingled, according to Kanitz.
As a professional farmer himself, Kanitz knows the fine points the industry. For now, Kanitz devotes his time to help other people, so farmers can sell their safe food no matter what country they’re in. “If it’s made into food, then we need to know whether it’s compatible with what we eat,” Kanitz says. “There’s a certain amount of risk and this is going to keep on expanding until we can fix it. The objective is if I know what made me ill, then we can help the guy who raised it or trucked it or processed it, so he can make an adjustment and he can keep on producing food for the population.”
“ScoringAg is food safety. ScoringAg is trace back. ScoringAg is foodborne pathogen prevention. We have all those different attributes in ScoringAg and you can document them,” says Kanitz. ” And, in order to see your product worldwide anymore, you’ve got to have records.”