Recognizing gaps in the research, development and implementation of system-wide food traceability, the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) together with international food industry stakeholders has launched the Global Food Traceability Center (GFTC), a long term, collaborative, public-private partnership created to address one of the most significant issues facing the agriculture and food industry today: traceability.

Food Safety Magazine interviewed William Fisher, vice president of science & policy initiatives, IFT, about the launch of the center and its potential impact on food tracing along the global food supply chain.

FSM: Why is IFT uniquely positioned to launch this center?
Fisher: IFT is uniquely positioned to facilitate the dialogue and collaboration among food system stakeholders from the farm to the consumer to achieve its mission. It also has the experience to bring together diverse and divergent interests and perspectives to build partnerships. IFT has a reputation for informed and practical research and has been a visible leader in food traceability since 2008. The GFTC will draw on IFT’s team of scientific experts, as well as other people through our partnerships with food organizations and knowledgeable individuals.

FSM: Why did IFT get involved?    
Fisher: IFT was asked to get involved by our members and other stakeholders in the food system. The key stakeholders view IFT as an unbiased organization capable of managing conflicting and divergent viewpoints by focusing on science and not endorsing any one particular solution. In 2009, IFT delivered a key report to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on the status of food product tracing and provided guidance on improvements and recommendations for future work.

IFT also conducted three Traceability Summits in 2011 to bring together leading minds in the industry to tackle the challenges related to traceability. These summits were a part of the Traceability Improvement Initiative launched by IFT in the summer of 2011 with seed funding from BASF Chemical Company, Underwriters Laboratories and the National Fisheries Institute Seafood Industry Research Fund. At the end of those summits, the consensus was that IFT needed to continue its leadership on the issue of food traceability.

FSM: What is the purpose of the GFTC?    
Fisher: The GFTC’s vision is “to become the global resource and authoritative voice on food traceability.” The primary purpose of the GFTC is to strengthen the performance of the agriculture and food industry particularly with regard to traceability. It will do this by raising the understanding of the value and importance of tracking and tracing food, and by fostering collaborative research and communications that provide traceability tools to raise the capabilities of agri-food businesses. It will also act as a focal point to articulate the importance of being proactive and foresighted with regard to food traceability and safety.

The GFTC mission is “To serve all aspects of the food system—from agriculture to the consumer—by generating knowledge in research gaps, delivering applied research, objective advice and practical expertise about data collaboration and food product traceability for private benefit and public good.”
To achieve this, the GFTC has organized four primary business areas, each with strategies and priorities to deliver value. The four business platforms are: research, protocols and standards, education and training, and technology transfer.

FSM: What is the benefit of having a single, recognized center involved in traceability?    
Fisher: Until now, there has been no global go-to resource and authoritative voice on food traceability. Industry, businesses and governments all pursue their own interests regarding food traceability with little collaboration. The result is a broad array of initiatives, programs, projects and systems that may or may not directly improve the food industry’s overall capabilities.

The intention of the GFTC is not to create sameness; it has a goal to improve performance of industry and government with regard to foodborne outbreaks and emergency management as well as to build and expand services and solutions that will increase the benefits of traceability and collaboration among participants in the food system (farm/catch to fork).

FSM: What can the food industry do to get onboard with and to support the GFTC?    
Fisher: There are numerous ways for food system stakeholders to become involved in the GFTC. One simple step is to become a member of IFT. IFT is an international professional society with over 18,000 members in about 100 countries. As a member of IFT, people have access to IFT’s entire array of food science research and information, including that from the GFTC.

Industry associations and businesses in the food industry who want to be more closely linked with the GFTC can inquire about sponsorship or request the center’s research, technical assistance and advisory services. Government and academic institutions are also welcome; we publish research and policy opinions regarding traceability, and can be called upon for food traceability training, speeches and presentations.

An Advisory Council has been constituted for the center based on the support of its Founding Sponsors, Contributing Partners and recognized traceability leaders [see Table 1]. The center will work with these and other partners and maximize use of available infrastructure to offer physical and virtual facilities and services. So there are plenty of opportunities to participate in the center’s activities.

FSM: How will the GFTC influence public policy?    
The GFTC is not an advocacy group but will work with industry, academia and government agencies to more proactively address food traceability. There is a growing public/consumer consensus that industry and government must address the transparency about (and safety of) the food we eat.

IFT has the experience and trusted adviser status to bring together diverse and divergent interests and perspectives to facilitate dialogue on policies that cut cross the entire food system. By providing this necessary “safe shelter” for open dialogue, public policy concerning traceability can be addressed more frankly and create better harmony between the capabilities of those who must regulate the industry and those who deliver food to people.

FSM: What drives the need for traceability?    
Fisher: The growing need for food traceability originates from two basic types of drivers: public good and commercial benefit. Public good drivers usually are considered first because they are quite visible. They include reducing food contamination/adulteration, lowering the incidence and impact of foodborne illnesses and strengthening our ability to respond to emergencies.

Proven business benefits flow from improving the efficiency and effectiveness of the supply chain (reducing working capital and raising cash flow), gaining access to new markets and consumers (increasing market share) and strengthening brand equity (verifying the provenance of a product claim or health benefit).

While the public good from traceability tends to command attention, it is the commercial value of traceability that will sustain it. In the 1980s, the worldwide automotive industry undertook a massive reengineering of its supply chain that was initially driven by demands for safer vehicles. However, the economic benefits of streamlining the supply chain now dominate that effort.

Traceability delivers benefits: It unlocks the economic value of collaborative supply chains (sometimes called value chains), and it enables industry and authorities to track and trace products in that chain when things go wrong and quick action is required.

FSM: What are the critical elements of traceability?    
Food traceability began well before recorded history with the earliest forms of identification on animals being tattoos, brands and colored staining, but it has only been in the last 50 years or so that food companies have more routinely relied on product identification codes and electronic data systems.

Traceability relies on reliable information to follow the path of a food product through the various stages of production, distribution and sale. Two kinds of information are needed: critical tracking events (CTEs) and key data elements (KDEs).

Within the KDEs, four kinds of data are required: What is the product (identification)? Where is it (premises or location)? When did it move (date or time identification)? Who is handling it (ownership)?

Regarding CTEs, it is a question of understanding points in the food system chain of events where you must collect that data. This may be different for each kind of supply chain, and therein lies the complexity that sometimes accompanies attempts to implement traceability.

Traceability is much more than data attributes and record storage, however. Traceability becomes powerful when there is the ability to readily exchange important information all along the food chain. This is another critical element of traceability and where leading companies and sectors are now focusing their efforts.

FSM: How many traceability systems exist today?    
Fisher: Literally hundreds if not thousands of information management systems claim to have traceability functions. Many are focused on an individual company’s need and are implemented for business management reasons that may not include traceability. So called end-to-end (farm-to-fork) traceability systems are rare and a more recent development. Where they exist, they typically serve a specific sector (such as poultry in Denmark, salmon in Norway and beef in Japan).

FSM: What’s the state-of-the-art system look like today?    
Fisher: Most food businesses recognize the importance of effective information management. Traceability for these companies is just a part of their daily operations and is not separate from their quality or food safety management processes.

What is relatively new is the idea of data collaboration with partners for the purpose of generating business value for all parties. This kind of collaboration requires a level of transparency and interoperability that has not typically existed in the food industry. It requires a company to look at itself from the outside and consider its business as a part of a much larger chain of events.

With the continuing evolution in IT, companies can now efficiently share commercial data without the requirement of having the same computer system or investing in expensive third-party solutions and electronic data exchange software. This is where interoperability comes into play. The challenge is to build this capability for all organizations into the food system.

FSM: What specific data elements need to be generated, verified and transmitted?
Fisher: Although there is broad agreement from major consumer goods companies on the need for improved traceability and transparency, there is only limited and preliminary agreement on specific data demands to be made by the system. The minimum data elements are modest. To find out what those are, a company needs to go through the process of identifying its CTEs and KDEs.

FSM: How must data requirements be adjusted to mesh with multiproduct traceability systems?
Fisher: Defining these data needs is the key to efficiency and interoperability; otherwise, the production base cannot respond, dynamic supply and competition will be inhibited and regulations become inconsistent (essentially the current state). Interoperability is possible only when the companies that wish to collaborate seamlessly join together in a dialogue and develop common definitions of their requirements and agree upon how the information will be shared.

FSM: How must data requirements be adjusted to meet multiple local realities and consumer/retailer demands?    
Fisher: The proposal by European Union Commissioner Maria Damanaki for a “universal catch certificate” is emblematic of the need for a global approach. In this case, to basic fisheries data requirements as being prerequisites to commerce and law enforcement.

Traceability is the tool to inform the value chain about what is happening. The tool will reflect the localized requirements for commercial purposes; however, it needs to be interoperable with the data requirements so that the information can be used across the globe for public welfare and animal/plant health purposes. Thus, there exists a need for a high degree of collaboration and dialogue about requirements and data-sharing protocols.
FSM: Why do we need a globally coordinated system for traceability and transparency, and why is it important?
Fisher: Securing food is critical to personal health and security, poverty alleviation and national viability. Global issues like sustainability, reducing food waste, household food security and industry vitality are all linked together through the ability to better track and trace food and its ingredients. Without reliable information from the food system, sustainability cannot be secured, and managing working capital in the food system is impacted.

Other key benefits of traceability are:
•    Increased business efficiency (supply chain management and cash flow)

•    Improved harmonization of national regulatory schemes (lower cost)

•    Increased investment in monitoring, control and surveillance (food security)

•    Equitable distribution of benefits along the food system (transparency = trust)

The technology is available; the basic framework for industry standards is in place; the challenge is to convert hearts and minds of those who produce our food—and to motivate behavior (commercial, political, social, legal) to create interoperability and drive adoption.

FSM: Which countries are leaders in food traceability?    
Fisher: The GFTC has undertaken two projects to help answer this question. One project will deliver a regulatory viewpoint on global food traceability—providing information about countries that have legal requirements. The other project will provide a guidance document concerning industry best practices regarding traceability and data transparency.

Both projects will deliver their findings this year. However, traceability experts would agree that the European Union as a group is one of the leaders in food traceability; Japan also has strong performance in beef traceability. North and South American nations are perceived as lagging on food traceability.

FSM: How do product tracing and the recommendations put forth in the 2013 IFT report to FDA benefit consumers?
Fisher: During an outbreak of a foodborne illness in the United States, state public health investigators and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention try to determine the food that is causing illness. FDA must trace the contaminated product back to the source of production and find the point of contamination.

Accurate and efficient record-keeping of the recommended data elements required for product tracing can enable FDA to more rapidly and reliably identify the specific suspect plant, food product or country of origin. The traceback allows FDA and food producers to identify more quickly and precisely the source of contamination, thereby reducing lag time in identifying other pathways that the product has taken to the market.  More precision enables companies to address their production practices and prevent future contamination. Additionally, tracking the product forward can allow for its rapid removal from the marketplace to avoid additional illness. Interoperability and improved traceability can reduce the time required for an efficient trace and may better protect public health, help reduce the economic hardship relevant industries face and maintain consumer confidence in the food supply.

FSM: What impact would these recommendations have on the food industry, and how do they differ from what the food industry is currently doing in this area?    
Fisher: One example is data gathering and storage. Currently, most food businesses maintain records about their production and processes, but each uses dissimilar formats and even defines terms differently. The IFT report recommends implementing certain KDEs using agreed-upon standardized formats. The report also recommends that we do not exclude any segments of the food industry from maintaining this information; under current laws, for example, farms and restaurants are not required to keep records.

The report recommends that every company maintain records, be able to provide them in an electronic format and make product tracing a part of the regular audit process. Companies would need to be able to link the information they receive about product ingredients to the items they ship. Improved product tracing can reduce the time companies take to trace ingredients or products backward and forward, streamline their supply chain management and aid FDA in faster, more accurate investigations.

FSM: Does this mean traceability is mainly about food recalls?    
Fisher: Not at all. Having information that permits rapid trace-back and track-forward capabilities is certainly important. However, traceability is a tool that opens significant proven commercial opportunities and benefits. Traceability is used to verify the origins or provenance of a food product—this could be for any number of reasons. Local foods, halal, organic and other attributes are confirmed only by having reliable traceability. Key benefits include more streamlined supply chain and materials management, which leads to lower working capital needs, lower waste and reduced costs. Traceability also reduces business risk and the costs of managing a recall should one occur. Lastly, traceability is rapidly becoming a requirement for the export of products into many countries; market access is a substantial benefit for companies that rely on trade. 

We would like to thank William Fisher for his insightful comments and engaging discussion.

William Fisher, M.Sc., CFS, is vice president of science & policy initiatives with the Institute of Food Technologists. He is a member of the Food Safety Magazine Editorial Advisory Board.