A review has found only a few examples of supply chains with full traceability.

In a report, commissioned by Lloyd’s Register Foundation, RS Standards looked at the impact of traceability on the safety of food. The evidence that improved traceability leads to safer food systems is commonly accepted, said the authors.

The review focused on the seafood, beef, dairy, baking, cereal and spice industries to identify food safety risks and how different traceability technologies were being used. GS1 and sector specific standards were found to provide a framework to ensure key information is recorded consistently.

It sets out different traceability techniques and the gaps, limitations, benefits, and risks associated with them. Four types of technologies were identified; software, Internet of Things (IoT), food sensing technologies, and physical testing. IoT requires hardware and software, regular internet access and investment. Blockchain-based traceability systems need software, bespoke development and tailoring to supply chains, and specialized skills to set up.

Simple and complex networks
Examples of supply chains with full chain traceability were all high-value and premium products, such as grass-fed beef and line caught tuna. They were relatively simple supply chains, which generally present less risk, and where one company controlled the whole chain.

Challenges exist with more complex supply chains that have many intermediaries, a multi-ingredient nature or where items are transported as a bulk commodity such as grains and cereals. One problem is commercial interests restricting data access.

The review acknowledged traceability is a very broad term and defined full chain traceability as using technology to provide information for all stages involved in the development of a product.

One of the obstacles in using digital tools in many ingredient-producing parts of the world is limited infrastructure and a lack of technology. A challenge for industry is to develop traceability solutions that can be used in facilities where work is seasonal and workers may have low digital literacy. Small-scale producers will need training on how to use technology as well as support with upfront capital and ongoing operating costs, according to the report.

Food traceability was one of three focus areas for the foundation following its Foresight Review of Food Safety in 2019. Evidence in the report came from a desk-based review and discussions with traceability experts and technology providers. A previous report covered food safety training.

Demand for more to be done
Increasing regulatory requirements and consumer interest are providing incentives for businesses to improve traceability. Given the hundreds of different technology providers, companies need to understand their supply chain, and traceability challenges they want to address, before committing to a particular technology. Hacking and cyber-crime are increasing with data security issues and systems malfunction amongst risks for many organizations.

The review found there were practical and logistical challenges to overcome and most businesses cannot improve traceability without the support of their wider supply chain. Verification and third-party assurance will still be required to back-up traceability claims.

Recommendations are focused on building capacity into traceability methods, and strengthening the evidence that traceability improves food safety. They include supporting low- and middle-income countries in ensuring food sectors can meet evolving regulatory and traceability demands of export markets and do research to understand the willingness to pay by consumers for improved traceability information on the origin of food products to generate trust and confidence.

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