The last decade has seen a marked increase in regulatory traceability requirements aimed at protecting consumers. Item-level serialisation for patient safety is now a regulatory requirement in many industries including medical devices, pharmaceuticals, and tobacco products. As global focus on consumer health and safety increases, manufacturers in all sectors should prepare for further regulations necessitating item- and batch-level traceability.
The food industry is a prime candidate for traceability, having been shaken by several consumer safety scandals in recent years. Indeed, additional traceability record keeping requirements for certain food products are already expected as part of the next update to the Food Safety Modernization Act in the US.
With this in mind, Adem Kulauzovic, Director of Automation at Domino, discusses how traceability record keeping, and in particular batch-level coding, plays a key role in the swift and accurate withdrawal of unsafe food. He also reveals the benefits for brands who seek early voluntary adoption.
Food recalls and consumer safety
One of the driving forces behind product traceability in the food industry is consumer safety and the need to recall products from sale following a food safety incident. Incidents necessitating recalls could include the presence of undeclared allergens or additives in packaged foodstuffs or contamination of raw produce.
Product traceability via coding and marking can provide a method for keeping track of food in the supply chain to support the swift and efficient recall of affected products when required. If a situation arises that necessitates a product recall, growers, processors, and manufacturers can utilise product codes to identify which products or batches have been affected and track where items have been sent. This helps define the parameters of a recall, minimising waste and reducing the time it takes to tackle the issue without compromising consumer safety.
Without traceability records, food safety incidents can necessitate nationwide recalls to ensure that all affected products are withdrawn from sale. Such was the case in the US in 2018 with an outbreak of E. coli linked to the sale of romaine lettuce. At the time, FDA attempts to trace the source of the E. coli outbreak were hampered by poor traceability records, leading to nationwide recalls. The inability to buy romaine lettuce might sound like a trivial issue. Still, the repercussions from the recall were far-reaching, affecting supermarkets, hospitality venues, and food manufacturers handling romaine lettuce for further processing into packaged goods.
A 2021 report on the economic impact of the E. coli outbreak estimates that the recalls hit processors and shippers the hardest. The estimated total cost of pulling all harvested romaine from the supply chain was approximately USD 20.6 million, with additional costs of USD 37.3 million from wasted stock that could not be harvested or sold[i].
The direct economic impacts of the romaine lettuce recall are in addition to damage incurred at the brand level. Many hospitality venues and packaged good providers found themselves unable to provide their standard products, leading to an inevitable loss of custom. Food recalls can also cause serious harm to a brand’s image, leading to lost sales long after a food safety incident has passed.
Traceability solutions for food and beverage products
The prospect of implementing additional manufacturing processes to enable traceability might sound costly. Indeed, item-level serialisation, such as that required in the pharmaceutical sector in many countries, has come at a high cost to businesses, but this doesn’t mean that all traceability measures have to cost the earth.
For low-value, high-yield food products, including fresh fruit and vegetables, traceability can be facilitated at the batch level using unique labels on cases and pallets. This kind of batch level labelling provides a chain of custody for product batches, trackable forwards to the exact retailer or food processor receiving a shipment and traceable backwards to the field where the produce was grown – and at all the steps in between.
In the event of a food safety incident, batch-level traceability allows farms to identify exactly which suppliers have received their stock, and enables retailers and processers to determine where a compromised product may have come from.
The batch-level traceability requirements described above are expected to be introduced for certain fresh produce as part of the next update to the Food Safety Modernization Act in the US. The new requirements, which aim to make it easier to track the movement of food and prevent or mitigate foodborne illnesses, will apply to all organisations that manufacture, process, pack, or hold foods deemed as ‘high risk’.
Food fraud, counterfeits, and adulteration
Implementing batch level traceability for fresh food can also help protect brands and consumers from the risk of food fraud – specifically foods contaminated with undeclared additives, also known as ‘food adulteration’. Food adulteration can emerge when fraudulent raw materials contaminate legitimate supply chains, putting both businesses and consumers at risk.
The risk of food adulteration is particularly prevalent today, with widespread supply chain issues and global shortages in raw materials. We are in the midst of one of the most substantial supply chains crises in modern history – stemming from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, global worker shortages, disruptions in energy supply, and other geopolitical pressures.
When raw materials are in short supply, substandard or fake alternatives inevitably emerge to fill the gap, and brands look beyond their regular approved suppliers to complete their supply chain, making them a prime target for suppliers of illegitimate produce. Indeed, the Food Authenticity Network reports that global food fraud has increased substantially since COVID-19 struck in 2020, with cases of food adulteration growing globally by 30%.
As with all counterfeit products, counterfeit raw materials can lead to loss of brand revenue and consumer trust if their use results in a noticeably substandard final product, but the issue results in much more than consumers paying extra for cheap products. Fraudulent foodstuffs can pose a serious health risk if unidentified allergens or hazardous materials are inadvertently added to food products.
Some of the most counterfeited products include:
- Olive oil – fraudulent oil products diluted with substandard or lower values oil may contain hidden allergens (for example, nut oils) or oils that are not fit for human consumption.
- Milk – watered down, substandard milk products have been found to contain melamine, a high-protein compound known to cause kidney problems.
- Honey – illicitly produced honey may be diluted with – or composed entirely of – refined sugar or syrups. Adulterated honey has also been found to contain potentially harmful antibiotics.
- Wine and spirits – counterfeit alcohol products often contain substances that can be highly detrimental to human health – including methanol, antifreeze, nail polish remover, and paint stripper.
- Seafood – seafood fraud is a global issue, with expensive varieties of fish often substituted for lower-value products. A frequent substitute for some varieties of tuna is escolar, an oily, hard-to-digest fish that can cause gastrointestinal issues. The sale of escolar is banned in certain countries, including Japan and Italy.
In its latest operation between December 2019 and June 2020, Interpol seized more than USD 40 million worth of potentially dangerous fake food and drink. Among the items discovered were dairy products contaminated with bacteria, meat from illegally slaughtered animals, and more than USD 20 million worth of illicit alcoholic beverages, including wine and vodka.
Batch-level traceability can help brands reduce the risk of counterfeits and food adulteration. This begins with a requirement for suppliers to provide supply chain data on individual batches of ingredients at the point of supply and delivery. This information can then be aggregated into each additional step of the supply chain, including processing and delivery to retailers, to provide a much-needed audit trail of individual batches of ingredients.
Embracing traceability in the food supply chain
Food safety incidents and adulterated and counterfeit food products can be just as dangerous as fake pharmaceuticals, and as such, the food industry is a prime candidate for regulatory traceability. That said, those without a current traceability solution should not wait for regulation – the time to act is now.
Beyond compliance and consumer safety, the end-to-end traceability of food and beverage products also presents an opportunity for brands to enable a greater exchange of data with retailers, suppliers, and consumers. Such data will offer new opportunities for food businesses to address risks and operational challenges and provide the transparency needed to run supply chains more efficiently.
As we move further into the era of big data, such solutions will become a crucial part of day-to-day business and a significant competitive differentiator. All brands working within the food and beverage sector need to be ready to embrace this opportunity.
As an industry-leading solutions provider in coding and marking, Domino can support brands looking to implement traceability for their products and provide the automated tools and cloud technology necessary to share information and facilitate transparency in supply chains.
If you would like advice on implementing product traceability on your production lines, please get in touch. Our global experts are on hand to discuss the best solutions to help you to safeguard consumers, protect your brand, and future-proof your operations.