Guest Commentary: Is Your Traceability Solution Sophisticated Enough for Today’s Complex Food Supply Chains?

The complexity of our food supply chain has increased exponentially over the past decade as evidenced by the enactment of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) in early 2011 and a list of recent food recalls. Three of a dozen or so recalled items in the last six weeks were from India, Vietnam and The Philippines (two kinds of fish and apricots). According to the FDA, an estimated 15 percent of our domestic food supply is imported—60 percent of fresh fruits and vegetables and 80 percent of seafood.

These were “simple” recalls that involved essentially single-ingredient items. But as you know, a tremendous amount of the foods we eat are like sub-prime mortgages—they’ve been sliced, diced, mixed, processed and re-portioned with ingredients that come from multiple suppliers and countries of origin, each with varying levels of quality assurance and local regulations. So in a jar of spaghetti sauce, you may have tomatoes from two (or more) different sources, oil from somewhere else—and don’t even get started on the spices!

What ties all this together is that the FSMA pushes the FDA to focus more on prevention rather than treatment and containment of food safety issues after the fact. And that change puts additional responsibility on food companies to be accountable for the 48 million people in the U.S. affected by foodborne illness each year.

The question is: Is your company capable of adequately shouldering that responsibility? Unfortunately, it’s very likely that you aren’t.

To effectively ensure food safety in such a complex environment, you need to be able to track all ingredients from the moment they enter the supply chain until items reach consumers’ hands.

But that’s just the beginning. A company’s traceability capabilities must cover transport and distribution in order to monitor key details such as temperature control for heat- and cold-sensitive items, and it must extend to and be accessible to suppliers and business partners. Otherwise, all you can track is what goes on within your own operation, and that’s not enough.

In other words, if you can provide a real-time, end-to-end record of the chain of custody, that’s great, but it needs to go further than that. You also need to be able to connect to partners’ solutions to incorporate their data and provide 360-degree visibility to everyone in your network as you move forward, monitoring quality assurance, or backward in the event of a recall.

The consequences of falling short in your traceability capabilities are obvious: the average cost of a product recall is $10 million. And the damage to your brand and overall reputation may be incalculable. Remember Peanut Corporation of America? Although that episode in 2008 may have involved intentional misconduct, the company went bankrupt, was connected to hundreds of cases of salmonella and prompted the recall of more than 2,000 other items that contained PCA products.

But let’s close on a happier note. The FSMA puts more responsibility on food companies, and that should help push the great number of companies lacking adequate traceability to get state-of-the-art systems and procedures in place to protect both their businesses and their customers.

And for one final positive example, consider seafood company John West. Based in the UK, its traceability begins on the high seas, recording the exact location and boat that catches its tuna. But the company goes beyond traceability as a safety and operational issue. It even offers a “Fish Finder” application to customers. By entering a code found on the lid of the can, consumers can tap into point-of-origin information to address concerns about sustainability and responsible sourcing of depleted tuna stocks. So this company shows how sophisticated traceability is not just good for business when it comes to food safety. From a public relations perspective, it can also be very, very good for business.

Tom Kozenski brings more than 42 years of supply chain technology and logistics experience to his role of Vice President of Product Marketing for RedPrairie, a global supply chain and retail technology provider. Kozenski is an active industry speaker on supply chain and retail technology topics who has presented at numerous supply chain conferences including PROMAT, CSCMP, WERC, DC Expo, FMI, NAW, APICS and Interlog.