BETWEEN THE SPINACH SCARE OF 2006 and last year's rash of meat recalls, recent history has made people think twice about the food they're buying. According to the Food Marketing Institute's most recent report on U.S. shopping trends, consumer confidence in the safety of grocery store food dropped from 82% in 2006 to 66% last year.
Many retailers, manufacturers and producers — who know that the vast majority of products make a safe journey through the supply chain to store shelves — are frustrated by this.
“As an industry, we've had too many recalls that have damaged our reputation,” said Gary Fleming, head of industry and technology standards at the Produce Marketing Association. “We need to re-instill confidence into the consumer that not only is produce safe, but that if there is a problem we can quickly and effectively trace it back, find out what the problem is, and get that pulled off the shelves as quickly as possible.”
Recently, Fleming and PMA, in cooperation with the United Fresh Produce Association and the Canadian Produce Marketing Association, established the Produce Traceability Initiative. Bringing together more than 30 companies representing every step in the supply chain, the initiative aims to establish a set of best practices that will enable complete traceability, from farm to plate. Retailers involved include Kroger, H.E. Butt Grocery Co., Safeway, Loblaws, Schnuck Markets, Wal-Mart Stores and Wegmans Food Markets.
According to Fleming and others, traceability in the produce industry right now is a fragmented process. In many instances, each step in the supply chain utilizes a different technology. A grower might tag a carton of tomatoes with its own scanning code, which then gets sent on to a distributor that can't read or store that information because it uses an entirely different system. And so on. The result can be a negation of traceback efforts, and a huge waste of money.
Compounding the problem, Fleming said, is the fact that most companies are confident in their traceability systems, and thus no changes are made. A survey taken by PMA last July found that 84% of suppliers say as much. Painting a somewhat different picture — but still emphasizing the problem — is SN's latest retailer technology survey, in which 31% of those polled said they are unable to trace a tainted product back through the supply chain. Twenty percent said the issue is “under consideration.”
“Everyone thinks [traceability] is a great idea, and everyone thinks they have it covered, but they don't,” said Fleming. “We talk about it and talk about it and talk about it, but it never gets done.”
Suffering from a lot of these same issues is the meat industry. There are many competing technologies available to ranchers and distributors — such as electronic ear tags, traceable stomach boluses or DNA identification. But most of them don't link up with each other, according to John Nalivka, president of Sterling Marketing, which follows the meat industry. This fails to paint a full picture, since food can potentially become contaminated at any stage in the supply chain.
“One of the biggest problems with traceability in this industry is that they put the technology before the business practices,” he said. “They've got the cart before the horse, is what it basically amounts to.”
One solution put forward by the U.S. Department of Agriculture is its National Animal Identification System. First implemented in 2004, the voluntary program is an effort to centralize animal tracking. Participating ranchers attach an electronic tag onto animals or inject them with a transponder that transmits DNA and other information to a series of databases.
Although there is no federal mandate for participation in the program, states can require adoption of it. Last March, for example, Michigan started requiring ranchers to electronically tag all cattle.
“We are as vulnerable today as we ever have been to a disease outbreak,” said Bruce Knight, undersecretary of marketing and regulatory programs at USDA, during a presentation on the agency's national identification system last year. “[These outbreaks] demonstrate very clearly the need for us to have a robust, vigorous system that can move quickly.”
USDA is pushing to make its identification program mandatory across the country, but the meat industry has resisted. Part of the reason is cost; electronic tags, which can run a couple of dollars apiece, cut into revenue. It's also a matter of priorities. Joe Scheule, spokesman for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, said the real issue in meat safety isn't traceability, but rather promoting best practices to reduce the risk of pathogen contamination.
“I think what you've seen over the past several months is that companies who have not kept up with those practices have paid a price for it,” said Scheule.
Retailers and processors, on the other hand, are focusing on traceback as a marketable practice. Companies like Murray's Chicken and Red Blossom Farms have developed systems that allow customers to trace their purchase back to the farm where it originated. Murray's, for instance, includes on its products a “Farm Verification” sticker that displays a perishable date and a unique tracking number. Customers can go to the company's website, enter in the number and find where their chicken was raised.
Scott Carr, chief executive of Yotta Mark, has been promoting a system that uses a common platform. The company's Harvest Mark tracking service feeds product information into a shared Internet database.
“By putting more information in the customer's hands, you give them the ability to feel confident in what they purchase,” said Carr.
But according to Fleming, systems like this don't show each step in the supply chain. If contamination occurs at the distribution warehouse, for example, an on-label traceback program is useless.
“It's not comprehensive,” said Fleming. “It does a lot to talk about the source, but it does not cover the whole path of the product.”
Some retailers are realizing full traceability through local sourcing. Small chains, along with natural and organic retailers, have long done this, and now the likes of Wal-Mart and regional operators like K-VA-T are catching on. Not only is it one of the hottest trends in food retailing, but buying close to home can also mean less complicated logistics. That, in turn, helps make traceback easier.
“It comes down to having much smaller circles of dependence,” said Trudy Bialic, public affairs director with Seattle-based PCC Natural Markets.
And then there's the Produce Traceability Initiative, which its members hope will inspire the meat industry and others. The initiative's first meeting took place early last month. There, companies decided on several goals, including drawing up a time-line and adopting GS1 traceability practices to govern future standards.
“When buyers state their commitment for traceability standards, and suppliers begin to make similar commitments, then things will really change,” said Cathy Green, chief operating officer at Food Lion and chairwoman of the produce initiative, in a statement.
The plan is not to mandate a specific company's technology, but rather to provide benchmarks for traceback systems and those who use them. According to Fleming, these will apply across the supply chain, and will enable full traceability no matter the technology.
“The standards for effective traceability have been created, as have the technologies,” explained Fleming. “What's missing is just action.”