Thanks to emerging and changing regulatory requirements, such as the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), food professionals all along the supply chain are tasked with refining the ways they record and share information about their products, and the ingredients in them. Another significant force driving traceability, according to one industry expert, is the consumer.
A taste for information
Tejas Bhatt, program director of the Institute of Food Technologists, told FoodProductionDaily consumers are getting hungrier than ever for information about the food they eat. Beyond the ingredients list and Nutrition Facts, he said, they want to know as much as possible, and that drive for data likely will impact how the food industry records and shares such information.
“The consumer of the future is a conscious consumer—connected, informed, and strongly opinionated,” he said. “They care about the environment and the world they live in; that’s building up."
That awareness and desire for information, Bhatt said, is integral to the modern consumers need for indepth information on their food—the food they buy today, and the food supply of the future.
“They can see food, water, energy and health are all connected,” he said. “More importantly, they make the connection between food and possibly unavailability of food in the future.”
Bhatt said a certain degree of “narcissism” drives current consumer behavior. Shoppers in the US and abroad want information, and they want the engine of the food supply to deliver exactly the products and features they want.
Getting to the truth
One obstacle food safety and processing professionals have to overcome, Bhatt said, is the mountain of misinformation. Myths about food (regarding nutrition, safety, sustainability, and other factors) abound, and they are spread like wildfire by the internet.
“To feel good about their choices, consumers sometimes change their beliefs into facts; you’re entitled to your own opinions, but not your own facts,” he said. “We as an industry have to do a better job of communicating the facts to consumers.”
The globalization of the food industry also provides several challenges regarding safety and traceability, Bhatt told FPD. For example, a seemingly simple frozen pizza can contain dozens of ingredients from several countries; in the event of an outbreak or other safety incident, every single component must be accounted for at every step of its journey along the supply chain.
Bhatt also said in the not-to-distant future, traceability could become even more challenging due to advanced production technologies.
“We’re in the space age,” he said. “Consider a 3D printer, producing food products, which is not much different than the replicator from Star Trek—you tell the unit exactly what you want, and it produces it. How are we going to trace that?”
As food production and packaging technology continues to evolve at warp speed, Bhatt said, food professionals will be tasked with keeping up with regulatory impact, economic impact, and other areas. They also should expect to face a supply chain that currently is relatively linear (from grower, to processor, to packager, to distributor, to retailer, to consumer) to a more interconnected model.
“In the future, the supply chain will be a system of systems,” he said. “It’s going to be more interconnected, interdependent, and that’s a good thing from a robustness point of view, but in terms of traceability it could be a nightmare.”
The consumer of the future, Bhatt explained, likely will be tapping into the same information producers, retailers, and regulators will access for food traceability.
“Smart consumer-forward technology of the future could create additional layers of food information, as well as an increased need for getting all your ducks in a row with tracing info,” he advised. “For example, a ‘smart cart’ could display all the information about all the products a consumer has picked up and put in the cart, which they could read on a screen mounted on the cart.”
Bhatt said the food industry already is moving in the direction of pervasive consumer-forward information. For example, QR codes on packages enable consumers to zap a container with a smartphone and learn about the origins of meat, ingredients, recipe ideas, and more.
Necessary to the advancement of shareable information, Bhatt said, is coming up with a way of recording information easily shared among, and understood by, all stakeholders.
“Without interoperability, and making sure the information is relevant and accessible to interested parties, none of this advancement is possible,” he said. “The future of traceability is in a revolutionary phase, and it is collaborative.”
Bhatt spoke to FPD at the recent IFT 2014 event. The annual conference and exhibition brings together professionals across the food industry to discuss technology, safety, ingredients, and other relevant topics.