The reception in some quarters was less than enthusiastic when a report comparing food traceability regulations in 20 nations was released.
Written by the Global Food Traceability Center (GFTC), the report weighed factors such as mandatory traceability regulations in each country, whether or not an electronic traceability database exists and the documentation requirements for imported products. All 13 European countries studied were judged to have superior visibility into their supply chains, while China’s was called poor. The six deemed average included the U.S., one of only two beef exporters without a national cattle identification system and a country where regulations remain incomplete for implementing the Food Safety Modernization Act.
“Deeply flawed” was among the barbs leveled at the report, and parochial muttering about regulatory over-reach was not uncommon. But the point of the report, explains Brian Sterling, GFTC’s managing director, was to highlight some of the barriers to harmonized requirements and regulations that will have to be overcome if improved visibility to the global food supply chain – and the consumer trust that would engender – is to be achieved.
Foodborne illness and disease-control in livestock are often-cited justifications for robust traceability systems, but mislabeling, misrepresentation and outright fraud also are concerns. Public confidence in the integrity of processed foods suffers as much or more damage from a horsemeat-sold-as-beef scandal as it does from an E. coli O157:H7 outbreak. With global trade in raw materials, ingredients and finished goods accelerating, maintaining trust is critical to the food industry’s long-term health.
Lost trust can wreak havoc on a product category, as illustrated by poisonous infant formula sold in China. Seven years after melamine in milk powder resulted in the deaths of six babies and illnesses in hundreds of thousands more, parents still shun domestic infant formula. Arrests for smuggling formula from Hong Kong to the mainland are double those for contraband drugs. Perhaps more troubling for Chinese formula makers, the scandal triggered a surge in breast-feeding.
Trust also is an issue between trading partners and with retailers and foodservice customers. Meeting the requirements of regulators in multiple nations adds further impetus for a more visible system than currently exists.
Tedious but necessary
Identity preservation, maintenance of chain of custody and knowing your supplier are solid safeguards, but they become more elusive as the supply network expands. Lab tests, certifications and audits are the primary tools for verifying that protocols have been met. In some countries, the assurance foundation still is being built, and there is increasing recognition of the impact organized crime has on the supply chain. As the velocity of trade increases, blindspots in supply chain visibility are exposed.
The business of verifying claims is drudgery, and it must be done over a period of time to have value, observes David Baker, a microbiologist who serves as director-consulting and technical services at NSF International, Ann Arbor, Mich. His firm is developing an outsourced supply chain management program to monitor supplier performance “so their COA’s (certificates of analysis) actually mean something.”
It’s comforting to have a trusted supplier, but unless someone examines the “micro numbers” of the supplier’s sampling plan, how the criteria were set and other minutia, COA’s are more cosmetic than substantive, he suggests.
Private-sector policing is industry’s preferred avenue to supply chain visibility, and NSF has expanded its auditing services to include standards endorsed by the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI), the retailer consortium that has been embraced by international food companies such as Cargill. NSF also is beefing up its consulting and technical support, acquiring firms such as Erdmann Analytics, a German laboratory specializing in analytical testing, to extend its global support capabilities.
A similar path is being followed by AsiaInspection, a Hong Kong-based inspection and auditing firm that has aligned with Silliker Labs, and domestic operators like IMI Global, a Castle Rock, Colo., firm whose parent company has the aptly descriptive name, Where Food Comes From Inc.
Founded 20 years ago as a cattle identification and tracing service, IMI partners with Colorado State University to test of food products and raw materials for a wide array of residues. Last year, the company acquired a dairy cow audit service that supports USDA’s animal disease traceability program.
The traceability program only applies to livestock moving interstate, and less than 5 percent of the domestic herd is covered. “It makes me sick, but that’s the truth,” says IMI President Leann Saunders. “There has to be a driver for a more comprehensive system, but we haven’t sent the right signal to make it happen.”