Increasing consumer confidence in food safety is a collaborative effort among businesses, trade associations, industry groups, and regulatory agencies. Driven by impending government regulations and increased consumer pressure for accurate and complete product information, food supply chain stakeholders are seeing past their differences and building consensus toward improved traceability using consistent, interoperable processes based on global standards.
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Driving Traceability’s Evolution
Traceability is the ability to verify the identity, history, or location of an item by means of documented information as it moves through supply chain. Ever since the Bioterrorism Act of 2002, all trading partners have been asked to step up their ability to trace products “one up” and “one back” in the supply chain, and traceability will also be a key factor in the FDA’s implementation of the Food Safety Modernization Act later this year and into 2016.
These regulatory forces ensure the safety of our food supply and are influenced by important cultural trends the country has experienced over the last few decades. Consumers are more vigilant about food than ever before and are demanding more transparency on nutritionals, allergens, and information about local sourcing and sustainability processes. Also with major food recalls still fresh in their minds—such as cantaloupe, peanut butter, and spinach recalls of the early 2000s—Americans are asking more questions about the food supply chain. Overall, the consumer’s thirst for knowledge is pushing the food industry to shift from simply responding to food safety events to preventing them before they start.
While traceability is being prioritized, there is more that can be done to streamline traceability. Today, only five out of 40 food products purchased for a traceability study conducted by U.S. Department of Health and Human Services could actually have all of their individual ingredients traced back through supply chain to their origins. Several disconnects might be at play—ingredients from different farms are mixed into one case, or some businesses may not maintain specific lot information.
Regardless of the situation, findings like these expose a clear opportunity to improve traceability, as well as the collaboration that facilitates it.
What is Whole-Chain Traceability?
To better track and trace food, the industry needs better collaboration and a more holistic or “whole-chain” approach to the food supply chain. Whole-chain traceability is achieved when a company’s internal data and processes used within its own operations to track a product are integrated into a larger system of external data exchange and business processes that take place between trading partners.
Enabling whole-chain traceability involves linking internal proprietary traceability systems with external systems through the use of one global language of business—the GS1 System of Standards—across the entire supply chain. GS1 Standards enable trading partners in the global supply chain to talk to one another through the identification encoded in the various types of barcodes. By using the same standards to identify and capture data about products, companies can share specific product information more efficiently and accurately, which ultimately benefits both businesses and consumers.
GS1 Standards enable companies to globally identify products in the supply chain in order to optimize visibility and efficiencies, as well as overcome limitations of proprietary solutions and systems. Using GS1 identification numbers, including Global Trade Item Number, companies can identify products and dynamic information (expiration date, lot number) to facilitate the communication of product-specific data when a barcode is scanned.
Main Benefits of Better Traceability
More widespread, whole-chain traceability will have a positive impact on the food supply chain in numerous ways, but there are four main benefits that can mean good news for suppliers, distributors, retailers, and food service operations alike.