In October, the World Health Organization (WHO) launched its Global Strategy for Food Safety 2022–2030, setting ambitious but feasible targets for foodborne illness reduction. A key focus of the strategy is to improve the use of food chain information, supported by the request that each member state establish national guidance or codes of practice for food traceability.
Robust food traceability systems serve several roles in advancing food safety and sustainability. Environmental sustainability efforts require knowledge of where food originates and how it travels through the supply chain. When aggregated and analyzed, product movement data sets can identify valuable trends and profound insights to combat food waste. Perhaps most relevant to illness reduction goals, digitized traceability data enable outbreak investigations while simultaneously facilitating swift and precise recalls that exclusively remove commercial products dangerous to public health.
With the increasingly visible effects of climate change and recall-driven food shortages experienced over recent years, both the public and private sectors face unprecedented pressure to improve the safety and sustainability of the global food supply. While traceability alone is not a solution, it provides crucial data needed to drive informed and effective improvement efforts.
Traceability at Present
Traceability and supporting technology have grown significantly over the last two decades as high-profile outbreaks and instances of food fraud inspired the industry to improve visibility and control over food products. Supply chain actors have created robust internal traceability systems, fostering crucial connections with their immediate trading partners, while technology providers have developed innovative traceability solutions that address the diverse needs of industry actors at each step of the supply chain. However, there is still an opportunity for advancement, and collaborative effort is needed to overcome the challenges of end-to-end traceability.
Many solutions struggle to function smoothly in a true end-to-end system as data sharing between trading partners requires costly customization. Technology infrastructure—internet access, cellular service, power sources—is inconsistent throughout the food chain, and implementation costs like data collection, user training, and software licensing can be overwhelming for some actors.
Implementation challenges are only exacerbated by the increasingly complex and globalized nature of our food supply. The U.S. has experienced significant import growth in several food commodities—for example, fruit import volume quadrupled from 1999 to 2019, with imports now comprising over half of the U.S. fruit supply.1 Traceability support and infrastructure need to evolve with the food system, but it is incredibly difficult to keep pace with the rapid structural changes in food sourcing and production.
The Role of Policy
Policy plays a major role in the advancement of traceability. Effective traceability systems have proven beneficial in a myriad of ways, but those benefits are not sufficient incentives for most industry actors to take on the burden of end-to-end traceability implementation. Regulatory requirements are needed to motivate widespread adoption.
The recent finalization of the Food Traceability Rule, implementing Section 204 of the U.S. FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA 204), represents a huge step forward for traceability. The rule defines recordkeeping requirements for those who manufacture, process, pack, or hold foods on the Food Traceability List (FTL), as well as a traceability framework for all food commodities regardless of listed status. Since imported food commodities on the FTL must comply with the recordkeeping requirements, the rule will also reach well beyond domestic production through the broad scope of U.S. food imports.
Despite the global reach, FSMA 204 is far from the only traceability scheme governing actors in the global food system. The rule presents only one definition for traceability among many that are used worldwide. The interconnectedness of the global food industry highlights the need for alignment on traceability definitions and the establishment of uniform standards for their application.
The Need for Data Standards
Data standards provide an instructive framework for both public and private sector stakeholders, reducing the burden of data collection and sharing. Many regulations and most food safety certification schemes contain a traceability component but lack harmonization around how required traceability data should be formatted or organized. Compliance with similar yet independent reporting schemes is burdensome for global industry actors, especially for those of heavy exporting nations. Adopting data standards that specify what, when, and how data should be collected, formatted, and communicated can reduce the burden of traceability requirements on a global scale.
Data standardization also fosters interoperability, allowing digital systems to seamlessly exchange and interpret information. Although paper-based traceability systems dominate the current landscape, technology-enabled traceability systems are the way of the future. Traceability technology solutions must be user-centric and fit for purpose, meeting the diverse needs of both data collectors and data users. Different solutions fit different actors. Without standardization, each solution requires custom integration to move data up and down the supply chain. While this is feasible in food chains with only a few actors, it does not scale effectively in the multi-actor chains that characterize our global food system. The need for custom integration is reduced when technology developers can design solutions around standardized data collection, formatting and communication protocols, allowing for seamless and scalable data sharing. Data standardization enables both interoperability and scalability.
Achieving Standards Adoption
Traceability standards do not need to be developed from scratch; they are already well underway. GS1, internationally recognized for its barcoding system, provides several foundational standards for identifying, capturing, and sharing data. GS1's EPCIS standard is especially relevant, as it is designed to allow disparate applications to create and exchange traceability event data.
However, food operations are incredibly unique, and widespread standard uptake will likely require some level of customization to meet the diverse needs of all stakeholders. Pre-competitive, commodity-based traceability initiatives that build upon existing foundational standards offer promising opportunities for end-to-end standards adoption. The Global Dialogue on Seafood Traceability (GDST) and the Produce Traceability Initiative (PTI) are great examples of sector-specific traceability standards built upon GS1 foundations.
Traceability systems are inherently collaborative and require all members of a product supply chain to collect, store, and share data. Pre-competitive, industry-led standards ease the burdensome nature of system-wide collaboration, promoting a cohesive and consistent effort. A dramatic reduction in foodborne illness is possible, but it will take industry, regulators, nonprofits, and academia working together to make it a reality.
Editor's Note: Food Safety Magazine's webinar with FDA, GS1, and PTI on the contents of the Food Traceability Final Rule, tech-enabled traceability, and the New Era of Smarter Food Safety is taking place November 29, 2022 at 2:00 P.M. ET. Register here for webinar access.
- U.S. Department of Agriculture. "U.S. Food Imports." Economic Research Service. March 16, 2022. https://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/u-s-food-imports/.