Food traceability. Why it’s more than just a “nice to have”

farming tech

June 30, 2022

Only a few generations ago, most people harvested vegetables from their backyard and bought meat from the local farm. This provided simple and direct food traceability. Trust across one’s food supply was inherent. With expanding food supply chains and easier access to ingredients and ready-made meals, product information and safety regulations play a larger role in food production today.

Over the last decade we’ve seen countless initiatives to introduce healthier mass-produced food, like sugar-free beverages and ready-to-eat meals made with less salt. Regulators in many countries have enacted laws to enforce these changes. The FDA, EU, and local country legislation are driving more transparency in product labeling, especially when it comes to serving sizes, calories, daily value percentages, added sugars, and more.

Consumers are hungry for more information

In the past, creating product labeling information was easy. Suppliers provided their specifications, and food processors then calculated nutritional values and listed the allergens that needed to be printed on the product packaging. It was straightforward if you didn’t change suppliers.

Today, product labeling is more challenging. Consumers demand more information on not only the source of origin and contents of their food as they shop for family meals, but also how the food was produced. What country is it coming from? What farm does it come from? How are the animals treated? Does that farm use pesticides and antibiotics? How sustainable is the production?

Woman checking groceries

NielsenIQ and The Food Industry Association (FMI) states in a recent report, "Most shoppers consider transparency to be extremely important or important (72%)—with transparency defined as providing detailed information such as what is in their food and how it was made." In addition, "almost 69% of shoppers would like to know more information about the products they purchase to understand how they can contribute to a better planet.”

Food transparency initiatives

Not all consumers are willing to or can afford to pay a price premium for food products with a transparent origin. But as your ecological footprint becomes more important, a growing number of consumers, retailers, and regulators will ask for more transparency.

One initiative that connects consumers to easy and instantaneous access to detailed information about thousands of products is the SmartLabel® initiative. By scanning a QR code, a website page full of information such as nutrition, ingredients, allergens, third-party certifications, social compliance programs, usage instructions, advisories, and safe handling instructions opens. In the future, it’s reasonable to assume that the depth of information about the product could even include where each of these ingredients came from, how old each ingredient was before utilized, and a whole host of additional information that could never fit on a label.

A great example of this initiative can be found in how the world’s largest producer of Atlantic salmon shares the details about a fish’s provenance and farming with consumers. By scanning a QR code on the salmon package, the consumer can get the full story, from the aquaculture farm to the packaging at hand. For many food products that look alike, it’s the only way to differentiate and strengthen the brand.

Workers at work in a fish factory

Food traceability benefits

Beyond meeting consumer demand for product origin, traceability can help food and beverage manufacturers act quickly in the unfortunate event of a food recall. One of the largest food recalls of 2021 to hit North America resulted in nearly 8,5 million pounds of chicken products being recalled due to a possible Listeria contamination. Being able to rapidly identify which consumers may have been impacted is paramount for a quick recovery.

Faced with these unfortunate events, food and beverage producers must be able to trace recalled products from raw material producers and transportation companies to the specific manufacturing facility and production lots to quickly determine which retail partners and consumer markets have been impacted. A graphical-based track-and-trace solution can provide visualizations that make the information much easier to digest and query. A graphical interface also makes it easier to evaluate if processes and procedures are being followed for specific batches or products.

When done right, traceability capabilities can be leveraged as a competitive advantage with new market-entry opportunities. Proof points on secure and responsible sourcing patterns of ingredients and raw materials can be supplied. Traceability capabilities can also be used as part of a company’s social responsibility initiatives to create transparency and trust.

Food safety software

Supply chain transparency and traceability should be part of the overall food safety initiative—as opposed to pursuing a traceability endeavor all on its own. This level of commitment increases the odds that a company will not only make forward progress on traceability capabilities, it also demonstrates that the company regards lot traceability as an integral part of food safety.

With most consumers now relying on food and beverage producers to provide essential information, having the right technology in place can help reduce waste, while ensuring food safety. This will also work to improve brand perception and customer loyalty, both of which are key to company growth as well as sustainability initiatives.

Worker using food traceability software on a tablet

To ensure food safety, transparency and traceability, food and beverage manufacturers must extend their track and trace capabilities beyond the four walls of their factory, extending control both upstream to farmers and downstream to consumers. This can be challenging as many food and beverage companies rely on factories and other parts of the supply chain that are owned by suppliers or trading partners—and those partners source from several suppliers themselves—creating multiple layers of complexity in the quest for transparency.

Connecting the dots in the supply chain, from farm to table, requires a digital platform for streamlined data exchange, compliance, and supply chain transparency. With this information, food producers can better manage their supply chain and production, for example, by synchronizing the processing in the factory with quantities, qualities, and time of the harvest.

Learn more how Infor’s food and beverage ERP provides traceability from farm to fork.

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