The E. coli outbreak in the EU this year brought a stark reminder of how important accurate traceability is in modern food supply chains, and also suggested that the current level of traceability capability in the supply chain is below what might be expected.

Technological solutions

It has been observed earlier in this briefing by Professor Chris Elliott of Queen’s University, Belfast that traceability in the food supply chain is “several decades” behind what is now uniformly achieved in the automotive and aero-nautical engineering industries.

The comparison with these high-tech, high-ticket, upscale industries is perhaps a little unfair. But Pascal Durdu of Zetes Industries, which develops and markets tracing solutions, makes the comparison with pharmaceuticals, luxury goods and alcohol, which if not directly comparable, are certainly closer to home.

Durdu points out that there has been significant technological development in traceability in pharmaceuticals, luxury goods and alcoholic drinks in recent years, and he expects the food industry could be the next area where substantial progress will be seen.

Among the new traceability technologies that has been used in other industries is RFID (radio frequency identification). However, its use in food has so far been limited, both on the grounds of costs and its suitability for the products concerned.
"One of the things a lot of companies use on a global basis is RFID technology for traceability," says Professor Elliott. "But that falls down on food for two reasons. One is the robustness of the technology, because a lot of the food supplies are sent in cold chillers and so forth which RFID doesn't happen to like very much, and the other big thing is the cost associated with it."

Elliott continues: "A lot of people have advocated the use of RFID in food but there's still a long way to go in making the technology more robust and lower cost." He says it "certainly will take a long time" for its use to become widespread in the industry, adding: "I think only those large companies with a huge infrastructure will be able to afford it."

However, as with most technological innovations, costs of traceability technology will come down as advancements are made.

Durdu points out that new traceability capabilities can be incorporated into existing technology employed in the supply chain, for example for picking and other logistics operations. "The technology is already available," he says. "It's a question of capturing more information."

With regard to RFID, Durdu says its use in the food industry is growing, though "not exponentially". Its applications so far are primarily in returnable containers such as plastic crates and pallets, as well as cartons for produce. "It is early days and people are looking at it but mostly for returnable assets," Durdu tells just-food.

Regulatory imperative

A number of academics and other stakeholders contacted for this briefing have commented that technological progress on traceability is far more likely to come about as a result of tougher regulation.

This can certainly be seen in other areas of food safety. Over the years, the imposition of tougher standards of hygiene in food processing, and the advent of better inspection procedures and certification has consistently brought improvement.

However, in any cost-benefit analysis by companies these improvements can be seen to be immediately beneficial. The notion that better standards and food safety innovations make sense and more than justify themselves commercially is not a particularly tough sell. Most companies are prepared to see the raising of such standards as reputational insurance at the very least, if not a moral obligation.

In this context, it is interesting to note the strong industry support for the measures outlined in the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) passed this year in the US.

However, Durdu believes that food companies have been slower to recognise the commercial and reputational benefits of "track and trace" technology. "They don't want to spend more money, but sometimes they forget that track and trace is also insurance."

As part of the FSMA, two pilot projects have been initiated to evaluate "methods and technologies for rapid and effective tracing of foods, including types of data that are useful for tracing, ways to connect the various points in the supply chain, and how quickly the data are made available to the FDA".

Insomuch as they are mandated under the terms of the FSMA, these pilot projects, to be carried out by the Institute of Food Technologists, represent regulatory intervention in food traceability but the intelligence gathered in this process could prove useful for food companies.

Given the cost implications of improved traceability, the industry in the US will be heartened by remarks made by Michael Taylor, FDA deputy commissioner for foods, when announcing the pilot projects. "We recognise the importance of engaging stakeholders throughout the process and will consider what is practical for facilities of varying sizes and capabilities," Taylor said.

However, once the research has been carried out the intention is to initiate rules on recordkeeping requirements for high-risk foods to facilitate tracing.

Looking ahead

Arguably this eventful year has left the food industry with more questions regarding food safety than answers.

In Europe, the inquest proper into the E.coli outbreak appears hardly to have begun. When launching the 2010 annual report of the Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF), EU Commissioner for Health and Consumer Policy John Dalli said the report, which pertained to 2010, served as proof of the efficiency of the EU's alert system. He said the E. coli crisis had demonstrated that "the necessary information must be disseminated rapidly enabling authorities to withdraw dangerous products from the market once they had been identified".

Unfortunately, the crisis showed that while the RASFF worked well in terms of communicating quickly to all EU countries that there was a problem, the accurate identification of the source of the outbreak took much longer. Products that posed no danger to public health were labelled as possible sources adding to the financial cost of the contamination.

Dalli concluded that "there is always room for further improvement" and that "lessons will be learned" to help further improve the use of the alert and response system. Arguably the most important lesson gleaned from the crisis is that it is in traceability that the most urgent improvements need to be made

Meanwhile, in the US despite the passing into law in January of the most substantial reform of food safety law for 70 years, serious questions remain over whether the Food and Drug Administration will be granted the funds necessary to implement these reforms effectively.

Food safety is therefore likely to remain a much discussed issue in 2012, hopefully as both regulators and the industry seek to find solutions to some challenging issues, and not because of further high-profile contaminations.