There are lots of good reasons for using food traceability to keep track of how the food on our plate got there, reports E&T.
If you're in any doubt about the influence that celebrity chefs like Jamie Oliver wield over Britain's supermarkets, just take a walk down the fresh meat aisle. Chicken, beef, pork and lamb aren't simply labelled as organic or free range. Thanks to various high-profile campaigns highlighting the distasteful practices of intensive livestock farming, you now get an indication of the farm where the meat inside was reared, perhaps a picture of it, and maybe even a photo of the kindly farmer.
Seeing where your dinner grew up is the sort of novelty that might appeal to the breed of shopper known in the marketing community as the 'omni consumer'. Behind it though is a massive increase in sophistication of food traceability, the technique by which everything we eat is tracked on its journey from farm to fork.
Globalisation of the food supply chain has resulted in lower prices, greater choice and for consumers in the wealthiest countries the opportunity to enjoy their favourite meals regardless of season. The downside is that the further food has to travel the greater the chance of it becoming contaminated on the way.
Reducing that risk and spotting unsafe products as quickly as possible so they can be withdrawn is the big motivator for the industry to invest in traceability systems. Once a dangerous product has reached the public, the cost of recovering it can be massive, never mind the damage to valuable brand reputations.
Tracking anything in a global supply chain relies on international cooperation. Currently, 177 countries participate in the International Food Safety Authorities Network, a system managed by the World Health Organisation and UN Food and Agriculture Organisation that was set up in 2007 following a meeting in Beijing.
Signatories to the resulting 'Beijing Declaration' pledged to resolve food safety problems through collaboration rather than trade barriers. Three years later, a range of monitoring systems are in place, but they tend to operate on a national level with a small number of countries contributing the majority of shared data. Developing countries inevitably tend to have less sophisticated measures, but the result is still tens of thousands of food alerts each year that need to be filtered to identify where to place concentrated efforts.
Scientists at Kingston University in the UK have come up with one potential solution a computer programme that monitors trends in food alerts to spot patterns of traffic in faulty goods. The prototype, which lets users generate interactive graphs focusing on specific countries and their links with other regions, has already identified phenomena such as the growing role of China in production of suspect foodstuffs.
The accuracy of such a system relies on consistent labelling of products and their ingredients. The food sector is following in the footsteps of the pharmaceuticals industry, where traceability has been a requirement for some time.
'It's exactly the same technology,' explains Giles Norman, who heads IBM's North European sensor solutions team and helps customers combine the firm's supply chain management products with other technology.
Data capture can range from a simple one- or two-dimensional barcode to a radio-frequency identification (RFID) chip capable of identifying and locating an individual package, but it's what you do with it that matters, says Norman. 'Once you capture that information you digitise it, and that's when the fun starts.'
Traceability is probably most well established in Norway, where a serious outbreak of salmonella poisoning a few years ago, combined with the prospect of EU legislation, prompted the country to embark on an ambitious initiative designed to make it 'the safest country in the world to eat'. Guided by the Norwegian Ministry of Agriculture & Food, the eTraceability project aims to establish a national infrastructure that will mean 98 per cent of food is traceable by the end of 2010.
One element of the system is being implemented, in collaboration with IBM, by technology firm Hrafin. The company, which spun off from Matiq, the IT subsidiary of food supplier Notura, has created a comprehensive tracking infrastructure. In the case of meat, for example, a newborn animal is given a unique ear tag that it carries all the way to the end of its life. The packaging in which the meat ends up is then tagged with unique electronic product code numbers carrying farm of origin, age and health record. As the package moves through subsequent stages of processing and eventually on to the shop floor, RFID readers record time, date and location and send the details to a data centre.
On a European scale, the EU General Food Law, which came into force in 2002, requires all suppliers to be able to identify where their products have come from and where they are going. Specific legislation applies to certain categories such as fruit and vegetables, beef, fish, honey and olive oil, and there are special rules for genetically modified ingredients.
The European Commission Health & Consumer Protection directorate has urged countries to agree on how they will address this issue: 'Since the internal market means that food and feed products circulate freely between EU countries, traceability can only be achieved if common requirements are met across all Member States'.
Things are moving more rapidly elsewhere in the world, however. Canada has joined Norway in setting the pace for others to follow and the US is looking at setting requirements for traceability that would make it easier for food imports to pass through customs.
America's imports account for only about 10 per cent of consumption, so are dwarfed by Japan, which brings in around 60 per cent of its food, much from China. That makes it one of the most food safety conscious nations in the world and, according to Norman, it has been quick to follow the example set by Norway and Canada.
Food safety first
Safety isn't the only good reason for investing in traceability. Norman's colleague Dr Trevor Davis is an IBM global subject expert in the area of new product development for the consumer sector but has a background in metallurgy and aerospace. He believes that with the food sector facing similar logistics issues to those experienced by the aerospace industry in the 1980s, there's evidence that substantial savings can be made.
'It's an enormous incentive for big manufacturers,' says Davis. At the same time, the disruption to supply chains and consequent uncertainty about future prices associated with the turbulent economic climate means firms that know where their stocks are and can control movement around the world can enjoy an advantage.
A measure of how much is at stake can be gauged from a recent report by GS1, the international association of manufacturers and retailers behind a series of supply chain standards, including barcodes and RFID tags.
Comparing product data from four of the largest UK grocery retailers (Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury's and Morrisons) with that from suppliers Nestle, Unilever, P&G and Mars suggested inconsistency in over 80 per cent of instances. The reasons for much of this can be found in supply chain processes, where, in the absence of standardised sources of data, each function creates its own local repository of information.
Bad data increases costs in three ways: manual work arounds to source missing data and correct errors, administrative shrinkage costs in areas such as ordering and invoicing, and lost consumer sales through shelf stockouts. The impact is significant more than140m a year.
With consumers demanding more comprehensive labelling and retailers setting higher packaging standards, GS1 estimates that the volume of information that grocery retailers will need to hold for products is likely to increase from an average of 66 attributes today to 250 in the future.
The big challenge isn't one of scale, however, but of persuading competing firms and different countries to co-operate to the extent necessary for a system to be truly effective.
Widespread adoption of standards that let partners control the information visible to others play an important part in this. Companies with 'secret recipes' are understandably nervous about the possibility of competitors being able to see what goes into their products.
With this in mind, and the costs involved, it seems likely that cross-supplier databases will be set up by government bodies, as part of their public health role, but maintained by broader non-government organisations.
As long as supermarkets are well stocked with safe food, most customers are unlikely to be aware of traceability systems. What the infrastructure also makes possible is a huge increase in the amount of information retailers can provide.
The prospect of scanning product barcodes with your phone to find out more about it is one service we're likely to see before long. Proof that what's in the packet is organic and hasn't been touched by genetically modified ingredients is high on the list of things that retailers believe will help sell premium products. Another factor in traceability is concern about the emerging use of nanotechnology in food manufacturing.
As Christine Evans-Pughe reports in 'Fat Chance' on p20, nanomaterials can be used to create foods with lower fat, salt or sugar levels. They have potential applications in improved packaging that keeps food fresh for longer or knows if the content is spoiled.
But a January 2010 report on nanotechnology and food from the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee warned manufacturers that they should be prepared for a negative public reaction.
'Past introductions of novel technologies in the food sector has met with resistance or even hostility.' the report says. 'The public's attitude toward food is influenced by a number of considerations including a fear of novel risks, the level of trust in the effectiveness of regulation, and other societal and psychological factors.'
Looking at whether effective systems are in place to ensure that consumers are aware of and protected against any potential risks from nanotechnology, the committee said it is essential for the government to work closely with other EU nations to avoid duplication of effort.
'It is equally important to ensure that the regulatory framework governing food is adequate to deal with the novel challenges posed by nanomaterials,' the report says.