Chain of custody
No hardware or software tool can succeed without a system that ensures it is applied effectively throughout a product's seed-to-table cycle. That means inviolable check-off systems that ascertain a product's location in the supply chain with all history intact.
"A tool is of no value if it is not in a good â€˜chain of custody' system," says RQA's Mithen. "It's like a guy with a briefcase handcuffed to his wrist. The system must say that no step can be taken unless that handcuff is locked to the next party."
"We want to track a product from cradle to table. Yes. But transactional tracking - recording the change of ownership - is important, too," adds Arnold. "They are both tied together."
A good distribution management system includes a good lot coding system along with an effective system of raw material and finished goods tracking. Together they comprise the first leg of an effective product tracing system.
A good audit program records lot codes as product components enter the plant or production. But the tracks of a product can become hard to read with so many companies operating under "no waste" manufacturing edicts.
Recycled product that re-enters the production line must carry lot numbers and history just like product made from first-time components, warns John Hoffman, RQA's director of crisis management, who believes the food industry lags considerably behind other industries when it comes to traceability.
But those are the kinds of challenges that processors are having to face in this game of track and trace.
Nutreco on track to traceability
As if the General Food Law of 2005 and EU identity preservation requirements were not enough, European retailers are applying pressure on pressures to prove traceability.
"We get lots of requests for audits from retailers and others," reports Kees Bink of Nutreco Inc., the Netherlands-based processor of salmon, poultry and animal feed. "They want to see how we do things. In the old days, we dove into piles of paper. But today we can trace products almost instantly."
Their tool today is NuTrace, a software product with refined tracing capability that Nutreco developed with Intentia (www.intentia.com), an international industrial software manufacturer, in late 2000.
"The new traceability requirements in Europe and the States today require that you be able to trace any material in your product - where it came from and where it goes," explains Alf Reime, global accounts director for Intentia. "But this information doesn't reside inside the ERP system alone. It is also in the production system, within information from suppliers, in quality and lab inspection. You need to combine information from several systems."
Incorporating the standard Intentia Trace Engine, NuTrace has been customized to Nutreco operations and systems. Intentia claims that it was the first tracking and tracing system released in Europe.
"Many say they have traceability, but when you dig into it, you find that there's information missing," says Reime. "You always have a sender and a receiver of information. When I have produced Batch A and sent it to Truck X, you need a system that follows and records that handoff. The chain of events must not be broken. Very few systems have that security."
Nutreco's suppliers also have benefited from NuTrace.
"Along with Intentia, we have spun off a product geared to farmers, to help them improve their production, too," says Bink. "So we are using our system as an optimization tool in our value chain."
"Lots of people focus on internal traceability," says Reime. "The really big difference is that we work across the supply chain."
The system has proven to be an effective marketing tool as well by providing assurance of product traceability to retail customers.
"Nutreco is a responsible feed and food producer," says Bink. "We don't just talk. We can show that we have full control of the value column."
NOTE TO THE WHOLE PRODUCT DEVELOPMENT TEAM
Traceability falls on manufacturing because manufacturing is the stage in which elements are mixed, shaped and enhanced to bring forth the product that defines the operation. Plus, each of the elements that converge to make a product during the manufacturing stage carries a history.
But a tracing system, perhaps more than any other part of the food manufacturing process, really does require a multifunctional and collaborative effort that includes R&D, information technology, purchasing and management.