On both sides of the Atlantic, 2011 has proved to be a significant year with regard to food safety. In the US, the most substantial reform of food safety law in 70 years was passed into the statute book, while the EU faced its worst food contamination for years in the form of the German E.coli outbreak.

Both these events have shone the spotlight on food safety but in subtly different ways.

Owing to the emphasis the new US legislation, the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), has placed on preventive measures, much of the discussion stateside has naturally been about issues such as the efficacy of inspections, the institution of tougher controls and the certification of food production facilities. Improvements in tracing procedures are included under the act, but have perhaps not been the primary focus.

In the EU, owing to the highly publicised failure to pinpoint the source of the E.coli outbreak and the cost, both human and financial, of its early misattribution, the focus has been squarely on the response to outbreaks and food traceability.

This briefing examines the response to the E.coli outbreak, the reforms instituted under the Food Safety Modernization Act, the implementation of that legislation, and lastly looks at the challenges both food companies and food safety regulators face in improving traceability in the food supply chain.

The EU food safety system and the E.coli outbreak

The European Union has a substantial regulatory apparatus relating to food safety, targeted both at the prevention of and response to food contaminations. The E.coli outbreak in Germany earlier this year provided the most thorough of examinations of the EU's procedures and put the entire issue of traceability in food under the spotlight.

The outbreak, which began in May and was officially declared as over at the end of July, claimed more than 50 lives, with some 4,300 people becoming ill. The compensation package paid to farmers had risen to EUR227m (US$323.9m) by the end of July.

The contamination saw the EU's Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF), which is administered by the Directorate-General for Health and Consumers (DG Sanco), called into action. The incorrect early attribution of the contamination to Spanish cucumbers and the delay in pinpointing its precise cause as coming from fenugreek seeds imported from Egypt into Germany has been suggested as evidence of the failure of the RASFF.

However, Professor Chris Elliott, director of the Institute of Agri-Food & Land Use at Queen's University, Belfast, believes the weakness lies in the overall traceability capability of the food supply chain, rather than a failure of the RASFF specifically.

In fact, he says the RASFF "functioned well in that the problem was highlighted very quickly". However, he adds, "I think where the thing fell down was in the traceability because food traceability is something which I'd describe as being paper-thin."

Elliott makes a simple comparison between the food industry and the automotive sector. "If you have a problem with a brake-pad in your car, the car company can identify every other car in the world with that same brake-pad, and then you get these massive recalls in place. The same thing doesn't happen with food because they don't have that level of information. So if you compare the systems in autos or aero-nautical engineering, food is several decades behind."

When speaking about the possible lessons regulators might learn from the German E.coli outbreak, EU Commissioner for Health and Consumer Policy John Dalli said the outbreak had affirmed the importance of the "full and efficient implementation" of the EU's food safety procedures. But he added that such implementation was in turn dependent on accurate information regarding alleged sources, which must be supported by "robust evidence".

It appears that at such times of crisis it is precisely that type of information which can be lacking.

So is this lack of traceability in food a problem which regulators need to address or food companies themselves? Elliott believes it is a combination of the two but says both face a tough challenge. "In relation to traceback in food, it's incredibly complicated because if you eat a slice of pizza and get ill which of the components of that pizza is the cause of the problem? Because there's probably 40 or 50 food commodities that have gone into that, from 40 or 50 different places, so how do you trace back that problem?"

As it stands, traceability stipulations in the EU basically require companies to provide 'one up-one down' information, essentially knowing where the product was sourced from and where it went. However, Elliott asserts that in practice assembling multiple pieces of information into a chain often ends in failure. "Food traceability is a paper-based system and you always talk about one step forward one step back in a paper trail. It's fragmented and highly complex. You end up with multiple sources of one ingredient. And it generally falls down after one or two steps to be honest."

Perhaps the most alarming aspect to the E.coli outbreak, for Elliott, was that the sequence of events was so predictable. "I could nearly have predicted it to be honest with you," he tells just-food. "People get ill, the cause of the illness is identified quite quickly as E.coli, and quite quickly it was identified as being something associated with eating salads. I knew after that, that there were going to be problems because of the multiple different ingredients in salads coming from multiple different countries. It's such a difficult task to go right back to the origin."

However, Elliott suggests that better forms of traceability, such as RFID technology adapted for use in the food sector, are now becoming available to food companies, but such innovation, while becoming less expensive as a result of technological advancement, remains a high cost for a low-margin industry.

Nevertheless, he says such investment would allow for quicker traceability in instances such as the E.coli outbreak. "The question is would the consumer be willing to pay for that level of traceability. I'm very very dubious about that. We do some choice modeling here in relation to how much [consumers] are willing to pay for additional traceability; it doesn't come very high up on consumers' choices." 

In that instance, does this mean that better traceability has to be mandated at an EU level? Notwithstanding the cost implications if such technology were compulsory, Elliott believes tighter regulation would force the pace on food traceability. Legislation, he says, is a "major driver for advancement, and I would say that in traceability the legislation that is in place really isn't fit for purpose and has to be improved. A lot of food companies will not improve their traceability systems until there is that requirement".

This view is supported by Pascal Durdu, business development and innovation director at Zetes Industries, a Brussels-based company specialising in traceability solutions for supply chains. "In my experience, there is only progress when there is regulation," Durdu says starkly. 

Like Elliott, Durdu suggests improved traceability technology is available but take-up in the food sector has been slow in comparison with sectors such as pharmaceuticals and luxury goods. Interestingly, an example from the food and beverage market where improved traceability technology has been more widely adopted is alcoholic drinks, owing to the imperative it shares with luxury goods and medicines in relation to tackling counterfeiting.

The task of achieving greater traceability in food supply chains is further discussed in the final article in this briefing.