Tuesday, May 11, 2010


With the food-borne diseases capturing world-wide attention, traceability has become a priority area of consideration so that such out breaks and costly market recall of suspected products can be avoided as much as possible. The problem assumes serious dimension under a global trade regime that depends on food resources and ingredients used by the industry from different corners of the world. While many developed countries are formulating policies for putting in place a dependable traceability program, some industry players are taking a proactive stand by implementing their own voluntary traceability plans.

Those products undergoing minimum processing and made from lesser number of ingredients are easily amenable to any new requirements for making the information about supply sources. But it becomes complicated bordering on nightmare when it comes to products containing dozens of ingredients sourced from different parts of the world. The "one up and one back" approach evolved a few years ago is relatively easy to be accomplished and possibly if every one in the supply chain keeps the supply source record, it should be possible to identify all the players involved through elaborate investigations, though it may take quiet some time to get the full details. The present clamor for full traceability vis-à-vis the final product by the manufacturer has to be understood in this context. The surmise is that in the event of any suspected episode, the entire sequence and the players involved can be traced instantly. Electronic tracing will eventually become an industry practice in future.

A manufacturer of chocolate bar in the US recently introduced a "choc-o-lot" code, a series of numbers that customers can plug into the company's website revealing where the cocoa beans in that bar were grown and who grew them. The idea is to introduce customers to the farmer in Ecuador, Mexico or the Philippines who cultivated the bar's essential ingredient. Tracing the chocolate from the bean to the bar is an elaborate exercise and this ability to track an ingredient from origin to destination is what is accomplished by this small chocolate company. Fritto-Lays Inc, the potato chips giant, initiated its own efforts under the "chip tracker" program under which consumers can track electronically the journey of potato from the farms to the factory. The fruit berry company, Driscoll's have the traceability sticker on the pack to inform its buyer about the history of the produce marketed by them while Chiquita company has put in place its "Leaf Locator" program for the lettuce it is marketing.

While 100% traceability is a desirable goal, whether it can be enforced across the entire spectrum of food industry under the prevailing situation is an issue that requires more attention to the details of logistics and other constraints coming in the way. Imagine the tribulations of a company dealing with a produce like tomato which are accessed from different sources for supply to the market after a series of operations. Tomatoes are plucked at different stages of half ripening, cleaned, sorted, packed, labeled and dispatched to the market. Naturally any given pack can have tomatoes coming from more than one farm and how difficult it can be to trace any contamination when suspected, to any original source. Under a strict traceability regime, the processor will have to have separate handling facilities for produce coming from different sources or at least separate storage facilities for each supplier. Same applies to all food materials as blending, mixing and pooling are standard operations in food processing industry for maximizing quality, safety and profitability.

In a country like India traceability will remain a pipe dream with millions of growers supplying the raw materials to the industry and millions of retailers peddling the processed products through their small outlets. Probably few retailers in the organized sector may be able to achieve some traceability because of their ability and capacity to link with large growers with traceable address. But eventually all countries have to fall in line if traceability becomes a pre-requisite for international trade under the WTO regime.




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