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Food Traceability

Last updated on 24th April 2023

When it comes to the food chain, people are talking more and more about traceability. But what is traceability? In this article, we’ll discuss the ins and outs of food traceability in detail. We’ll also go into its importance, the law surrounding it, and its benefits. Firstly, let’s explore the main definition of food traceability.

What is food traceability?

When we talk about food traceability, we’re talking about being able to follow a food (and all of the ingredients within it) through the supply chain. With food traceability, it’s not just about knowing where a food has come from or been, it’s about knowing where it ended up after it left each stage of production too. In other words, food traceability applies both forwards and backwards in the supply chain.

Traceability means keeping records and linking up the processes involved in producing, processing and distributing food products and their ingredients. Some food traceability examples include the case of foodborne illnesses like salmonella and ptomaine poisoning. Being able to trace the product and its ingredients helps the involved agencies to find the source of the contamination and deal with it effectively. This means affected products can be recalled and removed from sale, thus reducing outbreaks of foodborne illness on a wide scale.

To summarise, the more information is known about a food item in the supply chain, the easier it is to mitigate risks. This not only saves people from getting ill, but it also saves money and time.

Why is food traceability important?

Food traceability is nothing new. For more than a decade, there have been systems in place to track and trace foods and their ingredients from their original source (i.e., the sea or the field) to their final purchase.

Thanks to improvements in systems and technology, traceability possibilities and efforts have been gaining more and more momentum. Since the latter half of the 2010s, both France and the United Kingdom have brought about new laws that hold companies to account when there are supply chain abuses. In France, the law also covers abuses in the environment. A similar law will be brought in in Germany in 2023 too.

Food traceability of fish from the sea

Is food traceability legally required?

Anyone in the food industry must have information on traceability available for one step forward in the supply chain and one step back. With all this information, it means it is easier to track a food’s journey through the supply chain.

At the final step of the food chain with caterers and retailers, there is no requirement to keep information for traceability. However, if the retailer or caterer supplies to a food business, they need to adhere to the traceability requirements.

The law also requires all stages of the supply chain to have procedures and systems to be able to share their food traceability information with authorities when required.

All food must also be labelled in order for it to be easily traced and identified. Finally, sprouted seeds and animal products have additional specific requirements.

The UK is already a member of HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points), which is an international method of managing and identifying food safety risks. This has existed since 2006 as it became a mandatory and legal requirement with the EU Regulation (EC) No 852/2004, which is about food hygiene.

What are the benefits of food traceability?

There has been a global movement holding food companies to account for the traceability of goods grown, distributed and sold. With food traceability, there are many benefits in terms of food security and systems.

When there is an end-to-end view of a supply chain, participants are much more resilient to problems with outbreaks and public health. This is even more beneficial when the supply chain can be viewed almost live.

Another food traceability benefit is the reduction of food waste. According to the Boston Consulting Group (BCG), 1.6 billion tons of food go to waste every year. That’s one-third of all of the food produced worldwide, which is a staggering figure.

With food traceability holding companies to account, they can also create sustainability goals. In meeting the traceability requirements, companies strengthen their reputation, customer loyalty and their bottom line, as their consumers develop trust in the company and its products.

Other benefits include:

  • Stronger planning for supply and demand.
  • Improved inventory transparency.
  • Quicker progress towards sustainability and climate goals like a reduction in food waste and lower emissions.
  • Greater diversity in supply.
  • More equitable practices across the supply chain.
  • The market and consumers can give supply chains a nudge towards increased social and environmental sustainability.

Food traceability risks and losses

When an industry operates on lower margins, not acting productively can have devastating consequences. If food traceability requirements aren’t managed well, there can be billions spent on global costs for the food supply chain.

As with many risks in the industry, the ones most likely to be affected are the ones who have the least leeway in turns of affordability. The likes of low-income consumers, small growers and society, in general, are likely to feel the risk the most.

The food industry, therefore, needs to work together on its efforts for traceability. If a couple of larger companies took the lead on the initiative and got industry participants collaborating and communicating, things would be much improved.

The food industry needs to work with everyone involved in the food supply chain as well as food regulators to come up with a plan to shape the regulations so that they increase value for participants while reducing risks to the smaller groups.

Another risk is the cost of regulations. If the industry doesn’t respond well to new regulations, there could be drawbacks including:

  • FMCG (fast-moving consumer goods) companies, retailers and distributors pushing their own inefficient and siloed solutions.
  • Smaller manufacturers and growers, who often work hard on their sustainability, might not be able to make the required changes effectively. This could lead to less product diversity, a higher concentration of bigger businesses in the supply chain, and higher prices.
  • With new regulations, there is likely to be an effect on price and product availability.
  • Participants in the industry might face bigger systemic risks when it comes to compatibility, data and privacy across the various tracing systems.

How does the food traceability system work?

After answering the question what is traceability?, we might be interested in knowing some food traceability examples on how food traceability systems actually work.

It all begins with collecting data from a product at its raw level. The data is extremely precise with each component and ingredient listed in detail. It is the traceability system that ensures this precision. Typically, the product is tracked and traced through all of its procedures during manufacture.

Each batch that is manufactured of the foodstuff is allotted its own serial number for identification purposes. This helps in cases of food poisoning, for example, when a product can be traced to all of the others that shared the same ingredients and vats, etc.

During distribution, tracking is vital. Each product has a unique tracking identifier as it goes from manufacturer to retailer. This means that products can be traced forwards (after leaving manufacturing and heading to retail) or backwards from the retailer’s perspective.

Potatoes being collected from a field

Food traceability examples

Let’s take the example of a consumer finding glass inside a tin of chopped tomatoes. The customer would take the food and its packaging back to the retailer. The retailer can then trace the product and report the issue. This might mean that other products in the same batch are recalled and taken off the shelves. The manufacturer will be informed to see if they can find a fault with their system to explain the broken glass.

In another example, a manufacturer might realise that a machine hasn’t been working as it should and that there is a problem with a batch of goods. On discovering the problem, the manufacturer can inform the retailer who will then be able to recall the products and remove them from sale.

Throughout the entire traceability system, everything is logged from identification of ingredients, to serialisation, and tracking of journeys, etc.

Food recalls and withdrawals

Here is some more information about how food recalls and withdrawals happen.

If there is an incident with food safety and the food item has already been supplied to a retailer, it is withdrawn from sale. A food withdrawal is simply the process of removing an unsafe food from the supply chain before it reaches the consumer.

If items of the product have already been sold, then a recall is necessary. When a recall happens there is usually a withdrawal too (unless all batch items have been sold). Typically, a retailer will display posters of recalled items advising consumers to take action. The action might involve disposing of the food or returning it to the store.

By law, manufacturers and retailers are required to immediately recall and withdraw unsafe foods they have produced, imported, manufactured, processed or distributed when the food has left the control of the business.

What’s more, businesses must inform the necessary enforcement authorities like the Food Standards Agency (FSA), suppliers (where relevant), consumers (when a recall is needed), and business customers. This information must contain details of the food safety issue and the appropriate actions to take.

What is a food traceability system?

A food traceability system is designed to trace ingredients and food from its source all the way to its final destination in retail or hospitality. The system has to be able to define batches of food, which means that all food that was made at the same time, with the same ingredients, and in the same machines is allocated the same batch number. This is essential for good traceability.

A good traceability system will keep hold of the following information:

  • The business name.
  • The business address.
  • The description of food products sold and purchased.
  • Quantities.
  • Dates of transactions.

All record keeping must be available when requested.

Essentially, therefore, a food traceability system is a track and trace system – and we’re all familiar with that term since the Covid-19 pandemic. In the food industry, it works to transfer data about product movement.

How to create a food traceability record

There are many ways to create a food traceability record. The typical first step is to find a system that works for you. A paper-based system is simply not good enough these days and food supply chain businesses need to opt into a digital solution.

One resource that many businesses use is ERP (enterprise resource planning) software. An ERP platform has a range of key functions of which food traceability is one. When you use an ERP program for food traceability there are a number of advantages.

These include:

  • Being able to define your own fields for raw materials, finished products, quantity, expiration date, and much more besides.
  • Being able to integrate the program and its data with smart devices like barcode scanners.
  • Being able to see real-time data.
  • Being able to access all data wherever and whenever thanks to cloud technology.

Of course, this comes with a large initial investment usually, as well as a lot of effort in its set-up. But for companies who really want a robust food traceability system, this is the kind of resource needed.

Communicate with clients and suppliers

After setting up the system, businesses have to communicate with their clients and suppliers so that everyone’s traceability procedures are in line for a smooth end-to-end tracking capability. A business can’t achieve its food traceability goals without its business partners cooperating. Conversations with clients and suppliers are key to ensuring data integrity and facilitating withdrawals and recalls when necessary.

Woman checking food traceability of vegetables

Make a recall plan

When it comes to product recalls and withdrawals, there needs to be a system in place. It’s no good identifying a problem if you then don’t know what the procedures are to resolve it. Companies clearly aim to avoid withdrawals and recalls but they are often necessary.

In the event of a recall being needed, there needs to be a key team that deals with it as swiftly and smoothly as possible. They need clear steps laid out for them to follow.

This might include the following steps:

1. Notify members of the recall and record it.

2. Determine the level of risk and assess its severity.

3. Send out communications about the incident, including to affected clients and the FSA where needed.

4. Hold the affected products with immediate effect.

5. Trace the source of the contamination.

6. Initiate recall proceedings.

7. Complete all paperwork and file away after the withdrawal and recall are complete.

In the recall team, there needs to be some floor staff, operations managers, communications representatives, and perhaps even a higher decision maker.

Final thoughts on food traceability

Anyone in the food supply system has a responsibility to consumers. They have a duty not to put any unsafe food out for sale. Food is classed as unsafe if it is unfit for human consumption or injurious to human health.

Food laws must also be followed in food sales, storage, distribution and production. Food traceability is how everyone on the food supply chain can make themselves accountable. It is also a way of preventing an exacerbation of problems should an issue arise.


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About the author

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Louise Woffindin

Louise is a writer and translator from Sheffield. Before turning to writing, she worked as a secondary school language teacher. Outside of work, she is a keen runner and also enjoys reading and walking her dog Chaos.

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