National Food Traceability System in the Making

U.S. food safety legislation is in the works to create a national food traceability system that would help to protect consumers from foodborne illness and would enable food manufacturers to increase their responsiveness and ability to participate in the recall process. The objective of the food traceability system is to find tainted food and remove it from the shelves as quickly as possible.

If the new food safety legislation is signed into law, many participants in the food supply chain will be affected and may be required to participate in traceability technology pilots as early as next year.

The implementation of such technology raises critical concerns for those involved in the food supply chain. Congress has already heard from cattle ranchers and farmers with concerns about adopting unique identification systems, implementing new technology, and sharing data with government agencies and competitors.

Congress will have to address these important issues, and none may be more important than the technology that will be used.

True End-to-End Traceability

The problem with tainted food outbreaks today is lack of visibility in the food supply chain and our inability to quickly identify tainted food and pull it from the shelves. This visibility was supposed to have been improved by a number of traceability products on the market. In fact, these products only address parts of the problem, and most of them are proprietary in nature.

While some products offer trace forward or trace back capabilities, none offer the true end-to-end traceability that would allow a manufacturer or regulator to see the entire life cycle and path of a food item from creation to consumption.

New technology that can effectively provide end-to-end traceability is needed to effect rapid, surgical recalls to protect the health of consumers as envisioned in the current food safety legislation. These recalls must be precise, removing only tainted foods from the supply chain, to prevent the millions of dollars of loss that results from the current practice of recalling untainted products whose safety cannot be confirmed. This type of visibility would also allow related product brands and products to tout their safety with confidence, even in the midst of widespread recalls.

Lessons From the Internet

To build a national food traceability system, everyone has to be able to participate. The best model that we have for a ubiquitous, enabling technology that shares information is the Internet.

The Internet developed out of a network of computers called ARPANET, which was supported by the U.S. government. Adoption truly began when its tech- nology was published as standards documentation that was made available to all online service providers. These standards are now called RFCs (requests for comments) and are managed by a nonprofit standards organization called the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF). Over 5,000 RFCs exist today, and they serve as the blueprint for how a globally accessible and interoperable technology can be implemented to scale.

Unfortunately, our food safety technology currently operates like a Commodore 64 when what we need is iPhone capability. In order for a national food traceability system to be adopted and to scale, the technology that underpins it must, like the Internet, be standards-based and interoperable. This foundation will allow any organization to access it in a uniform way and will provide a platform for innovation, enabling new technologies that can improve quality control and food safety response.

In fact, given the nature of the food supply chain, the system must scale not only nationally but also internationally so that recalls can also be conducted on foods that are both imported into, and exported from, the United States.

Even with a technical standards process for food traceability, companies that participate in a supply chain will always be concerned with sharing data about their products with their competitors or the government. To ease these concerns and smooth the way for adoption, a national traceability system must have security features that will protect the data that is provided by participating companies but will still allow for end-to-end traceability of a food item.

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