As the global food economy struggles to reconcile itself with new concerns about bioterrorism and the emerging implications of foodborne illness outbreaks, its response has been to take greater control over processing and distribution channels through the traceability of ingredients and finished products. Large retailers and restaurant chains, such as Wal-Mart Stores and McDonald’s Corp., are demanding traceability from their suppliers, and most processors are beginning to recognize that proof of traceability will soon be a minimum standard for doing business.

In some parts of the world, traceability is not only a value-added for the food supply chain, it’s a law. Traceability systems have been obligatory for all businesses in the food chain in the European Union (EU) since January 2005. The EU directive requires businesses to be able to identify all suppliers of food, food products and feed, as well as all businesses to which they supply food or feed. The information needs to be systematically stored in order to be made available to inspection authorities on demand.

In the U.S., the Bioterrorism Act includes a similar requirement regarding the establishment of records to identify the immediate previous sources and immediate subsequent recipients of food, including its packaging, which came into effect for larger processors in December 2005. Smaller companies have until June 2006 or December 2006, depending on the company size, to comply.

Establishing security in the food chain is the goal of all these regulations, but how companies achieve that goal is largely up to them. Depending on the size of the company, the products and ingredients used and the complexity of its supply chain, different tools and tracking devices deliver different levels of security and information. Some traceability systems are deep, tracking details for hundreds of individual ingredients from dozens of suppliers through a multi-step production process, while others simply track a few key ingredients back to one key point in the production process.

Traceability tools fall under three categories: product identification (ID) and marking, traceability tools and software, and radio frequency identification devices (RFID) systems. In recent months, companies across the industry have released new products or updates to existing technologies designed to assist food processors, foodservice and retailers with developing systems that support track-and-trace objectives.

Product ID and Labeling
Product ID systems are the most common tracking tool being used and have been around the longest. They include bar coding and imprinting tools that use tracking numbers to link finished products back to specific data relating to their production history.

For processors that use a few key, self-contained ingredients, or use only a few key sources, ID and marking techniques serve their needs nicely. In response to the growing need for more exact tracking, or additional key data associated with marking tools, companies such as Eggfusion and Daymark are adding exciting new technologies to this traditional method for tracking.

Eggfusion’s (Deerfield, IL) new laser etching technology enables permanent, tamper-proof etching of a date and traceability code onto individual shell eggs that can be used to look-up additional data points regarding the egg’s origin and distribution. Unlike labels on cartons, the laser etching allows processors to track each individual egg with etching for freshness dating and traceability codes that are integrated with technology platforms, assuring accuracy in the information associated with the origin and distribution of the egg.

DayMark Safety Systems (Bowling Green, OH) recently introduced new Timestrip freshness indicator labels that adhese to fresh or frozen food packaging for automatic monitoring of product shelf life. Activated by peeling off the backing, squeezing a bubble on the back of the strip, DayMark TimeStrips are applied directly to the food package or container. After activation, a purple mark appears that gradually moves along a white horizontal bar to the left of the label strip, indicating the time that has lapsed as the food approaches its expiration date. When the bar is completely purple, the food has reached its expiration date and should be discarded.

According to the developers, the indicators allow processors and distributors to track food freshness in transit and in storage, saving the expense and potential health hazards caused by spoiled or wasted food, and are especially useful for food items at high risk for bacterial growth, such as seafood, poultry, meat and dairy.

The ability to track freshness data in transit and storage of food products through indicator labeling can be useful in reducing potential food hazards from reaching consumersers. Image courtesy of DayMark Safety Systems

Traceability Tools and Software
Food companies build traceability systems not only to meet legal requirements or customer standards but to raise productivity through enhanced data management. If a traceability system is robust enough, it can offer improved supply-side management, increased safety and quality control, and the ability to market foods with credence attributes that are difficult for consumers to detect, such as whether a food was produced through genetic engineering. Along with creating a safer food chain, these features are designed to result in lower-cost distribution systems, reduced recall expenses and expanded sales of high-value products, which all translate into greater profitability.

According the 2004 U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service (USDA ARS) report, Traceability in the U.S. Food Supply: Economic Theory and Industry Studies, by Elise Golan, Barry Krissoff, Fred Kuchler, Linda Calvin, Kenneth Nelson and Gregory Price, traceability systems in U.S. companies tend to be motivated by eco-nomic incentives, not by government traceability regulations, and the more robust the system the greater the impact it has on the business. Cost/performance improvement benefits are driving the widespread development of robust tracking across the U.S. food supply chain.

However, one government regulation is becoming a factor in the drive toward increased traceability program implementation in the food supply chain. In September 2005, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued its final guidance to the food and beverage industry pertaining to the mandates of the Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act (Bioterrorism Act). Section 306 of the act mandates strict recordkeeping requirements for those who manufacture, process, pack, transport, distribute, receive, hold or import food in the U.S. In short, food companies with traceability programs in place are well positioned to comply with the regulation, which requires companies to be able to collect and keep data that enables the control of all materials and products throughout the entire lifecycle of their food products, from original supplier to consumer.

Traceability alone, however cannot accomplish these goals. Simply knowing where a product is in the supply chain does not improve supply management unless the traceability system is paired with a real-time delivery system or some other data collection and management system. To make traceability more than a tracking and recovery tool, many traceability systems include tools such as environmental monitors and product scanners that link information back to sophisticated data storage systems, which gather and organize product data so that it can be easily retrieved for safety, security and quality assurance reviews or recall situations.

The information gathered with these tools is limited only to the need and imagination of processors, and often include temperature and storage data, product testing, personnel handling, farm of origin, shipping, and time and date stamping data. There are several new and improved computerized systems and software on the market that are making data collection and management easier for food processors.

Traceability software systems help food companies manage data for product safety, quality and security throughout the food manufacturing and distribution supply chain. Image courtesy of Ross Systems Inc.

Ross Systems’ (Atlanta, GA) iRennaissance integrated business system automates traceability, enabling processors such as Berner Foods, Michael Angelos Gourmet Foods, Litehouse Foods, Gordon Fine Foods and others to monitor quality and product attributes for each batch or lot they manufacture. The software suite is a combination of business applications that manage financials, manufacturing operations, inventory control, and interactions with customers and suppliers, and can track raw ingredients throughout the production and distribution of finished products for quick containment in the face of a recall.

According to Ross Systems, iRennaissance customers have reduced lot trace times from several days to several minutes using its tracking features. One customer, Upper Marlboro, MD-based Murry’s, Inc., a manufacturer of more than 150 frozen food products, including its famous Quarter Pound Hamburgers and the top-selling Original French Toast Sticks, lacked an enterprise-wide solution to easily manage and maintain data throughout each step of the manufacturing process. In addition to the company’s internal audits, USDA required manufacturers to perform mock product recalls two to three times per year. Without the ability to quickly and efficiently recall product data and raw material information during these audits, the company had to use time-consuming and labor-intensive means to determine the movement of the audited products.

With the help of iRenaissance, Murry’s reported that it could more effectively track and trace products from raw material delivery, throughout the manufacturing process and on to the supermarket shelves. In the event a product recall should occur, Murry’s can bi-directionally trace each product, allowing the company to track its products in the event of a recall threat in less than four hours, which previously took an entire day.

QuaTIS from TUV America (Danvers, MA) is another system that enables security of quality control throughout the food production chain through a self-contained consumer information system that delivers key traceability information via the Internet. QuaTIS links existing company resource planning (product management), laboratory systems, other monitoring systems and external service provider information into one system. Its capabilities range from simple checks of appraisals of sample tests, to full quality control and traceability within the area of crop and livestock food production.

In addition to its range of data management systems, such as the InTrack system that offers in-plant traceability solutions, Invensys Wonderware’s (Lake Forest, CA) eCompliance Solutions is designed to enable food processors to quickly and affordably meet the Bioterrorism Act’s requirements under which the FDA must ensure that all food processing facilities in the U.S. and those that import products into the U.S. keep current, accurate records of every ingredient or other component that goes into its products. In addition to facilitating compliance with the new food bioterrorism regulations, the Wonderware eCompliance modular software package provides traceability for incoming materials, enables work-in-process changes and facilitates the shipment of finished goods. For large food manufacturers, eCompliance Solutions can also incorporate barcode technology, RFID and document exchange/business system integration in addition to recipe and inventory management.

AssurX’s (Morgan Hill, CA) CATSWeb is an enterprise-wide, FDA compliant, Web-based quality and compliance system that empowers organizations to identify production problems, avoid adverse events, trace-and-track quality and security data, and complete audits faster and more effectively than they can with paper-based systems. The CATSWeb system is used at FDA-regulated and ISO/QS 9000 certified companies around the world. CATSWeb is a zero client application that can be accessed from any computer, running any operating system, with any Web browser, anywhere and anytime that an Internet or intranet connection is available—which is useful for multi-plant and multinational food companies operating under differing regulatory or standards environments.

John Deere’s Agri Services (Hoffman Estates, IL) provides a series of tracking and traceability solutions that assist in the identification and isolation of food products and their ingredients throughout the agri-food chain. JDAS’s in-market solutions include in-field sensors and monitoring systems; RFID solutions to track field-level performance for produce and grains; and, tracking, tracing and decision support systems for producers, processors and manufacturers.

RFID: A New Frequency
There has been a lot of talk about radio frequency identification device technology and its role in improving traceability in the industrial manufacturing and distribution supply chain. RFID smart labeling is a means of product identification that has been adopted by retailers and governmental agencies to track the movement of products throughout the supply chain.

RFID is being widely adopted by food retailers, such as Sainsbury’s in the U.K. as shown here, which is driving adoption by manufacturering companies upstream. Courtesy of Tibbett & Britten Group

RFID employs radio frequency communications to exchange data between a portable memory device or smart label and a host computer. A smart label is a pressure-sensitive label with an RFID transponder (or inlay) embedded between the label face stock and its release liner. This RFID tag can be encoded with large amounts of variable information that can be gathered by an RFID reader. Unlike bar codes, RFID data can be accessed without the visibility of the tag itself, and multiple RFID smart labels can be read at the same time.

Until 2003, the retail sector—even including its suppliers and supply chains—was a tiny part of the RFID business. However, that’s quickly changing. According to Cambridge-UK-based IDTechEx, a research and conference organizer that specializes in RFID trends and technologies, the technology has become the hottest development in food supply chain traceability around the world. It notes that the RFID industry includes market pull, with MacDonald’s the world’s largest outlet for cooked meat recently mandating full traceability from its suppliers and Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, mandating RFID on all incoming pallets and cases as a prelude to tagging everything. As a result, major food companies, such as 7-11 Stores, Del Monte Fresh Produce, Albertson’s and Kraft Foods, among others, are now implementing RFID technologies.

The technology also has legal push with the 2005 EU legislation demanding “one up one down” traceability and the U.S. Bioterrorism Act requiring unprecedented levels of traceability. China and Japan are also in the lead, says IDTechEx, and they have their own concerns. For example, Japan is convicting criminals that pass off inferior foreign fish as coming from Japanese waters.

Billion dollar businesses will be created as a consequence, notes the company, much the same as happened with barcodes years ago. According to its new market research report on trends in RFID use, IDTechEx predicts that in 2006 almost three times the volume of RFID tags will be sold than over the previous 60 years since the technology’s invention. The authors of the report also predict that the market for RFID, including tags, systems and services, will grow from $1.94 billion in 2005 to $24.50 billion in 2015. The IDTechEx experts believe that 900 billion packaged and perishable food items could be RFID tagged in 2015.

Will RFID replace UPC bar code technology? Probably not, at least not in the near future. Besides the fact that RFID tags still cost more than UPC labels, different data capture and tracking technologies offer different capabilities. Many businesses will likely combine RFID with existing technologies such as barcode readers or digital cameras to achieve expanded data capture and tracking capabilities that meet their specific business needs. Many of the suppliers listed here have a long history of developing traceability tools and have added RFID products and services to their offerings to take advantage of this growing trend.

Laudis Systems’ (Edison, NJ). SequorShare brings together state-of-the-art RFID sensor technology and a scalable RFID network and portal service that can be deployed to meet various business improvement objectives. It features the capability to integrate with existing and/or new security and enterprise software systems.

Laudis also manufactures SequorID, which can, trace and protect perishable foods through the supply chain; and SequorLocate and SequorAssure modules, which are designed to enable continuous monitoring and locating for more effective planning and proactive response.

Weber Labeling and Coding Solutions (Arlington Heights, IL), which has long had a presence in the label industry, has added RFID smart labels to its line of pressure-sensitive label products and consulting services. It manufactures the RFID smart labels using fully tested RFID inlays, and helps clients choose the best face stock, RFID inlay and adhesive combinations for their applications. Weber has the capability to supply RFID smart labels that will meet both established and emerging standards.

Syscan (St-Laurent, Quebec) is a supply chain solution provider delivering integrated real-time tracking and tracing systems that improve business efficiency through RFID. Through its i4cIT product, RFID tags are placed on perishables or temperature-sensitive products, on pallets and cases, and in trailers or containers, to monitor and communicate product temperature and security in real time as products move from source to destination. The tool is applicable for perishable and temperature-sensitive goods including, produce, dairy, meat, and poultry.

Omron (Schaumburg, IL) offers RFID systems that act as portable databases, which allow information to be accessed and modified at any point on the production line. According to the company, its RFID systems are built to withstand a wide range of operating conditions, including harsh environments where the use of bar coding is not practical. RFID tags, RFID antennas and RFID controllers are all industrially hardened to withstand wet, oily and other adverse conditions.

Checkpoint Systems (Thorofare, NJ) has introduced the METO branded mi-4210 RFID printer that allows the use of smart labels to combine both product-specific barcode information and radio frequency data in a single thermal label by incorporating a radio frequency circuit into the printed label. The METO mi-4210 RFID printer comes in two versions: fully enabled to encode all available RFID protocols, or an upgradeable version offering barcode printing only with ability to add RFID encoding at a later date. This allows customers to purchase a thermal printer today and adapt as needed with minimal investment.

Brady Corp. (Milwaukee, WI) offers an assortment of label technology aimed at providing security, authenticity and information that is both electronic and visual. The security technologies can be both overt and covert, and include holograms, and ultraviolet or infrared taggants embedded in the label material that can only be seen when illuminated by devices emitting specific wavelengths.

Brady also offers RFID technology that can confirm the pedigree or chain of custody of the food from the processor through distribution and to the end retailer. In addition to the RFID data Brady has a growing line of “smart” materials to visually indicate that the package and label has experienced time, temperature or humidity abuse.