Legislation requiring food manufacturers to keep detailed records of the supply chain is coming into force in the US next month. Next year, it is the turn of the EU. We ask one supply chain management company why traceability has become such a priority for the food industry.
Traceability has become a key concern for those operating in food processing. Supermarkets, feeling the heat from public concerns over safety, are demanding to know exactly what happens to a product at every stage of production, and legislation will soon be in place that obliges producers to provide detailed accounts of the supply chain.
"Traceability is all about record keeping," Scot McLeod, Ross Systems vice president for marketing, North America told FoodProductionDaily.com. "It means keeping track of raw materials through to shipping a final product, and everything in between."
This increase in accountability means that producers are under a lot of pressure. "Imagine if you supply a retail chain, and you have 30 customers," said McLeod. "Each one makes up a large percentage of your business. If you are not protecting them, then you will lose them.
"For example, if a customer phones up and demands information on a certain product at a certain point in the supply chain, a company with a fully automated system should be able to trace it within three hours. If they can't, then the customer is likely to take their business elsewhere."
Increasing awareness of traceability is in many ways a reflection of growing global uncertainty and the perceived threat of bioterrorism. Intentional contamination of the food supply is of course a worst-case scenario, but more and more companies are preparing for this unlikely eventuality.
"Manufacturers can do two things," said McLeod. "They can take security measures at the plant to prevent non-authorised people having access, and they can introduce measures to contain an outbreak."
Containment comes back to traceability. If a bioterrorist attack does occur, then the need to identify where the contamination occurred is vital. The product needs to be removed from shelves as soon as possible, and this is why traceability is so important. According to McLeod a fully automated tracing system is the only means of ensuring a product can be accounted for right across the supply chain.
"Let me give you an example. We recently provided a meat processor with a fully automated system that involved bar code scanning. An order of meat came through, and so the inventory clerk pulled out the order and scanned it. The system rejected the order, and the clerk didn't know why. It turned out that the reason was that the customer had negotiated for an order of meat with a minimum number of shelf life days left, and the system saw that the meat didn't comply with this."
Growing public awareness of food safety issues, the growing threat of bioterrorism and the introduction of stringent legislation are changing the face of food production. Supermarkets on both sides of the Atlantic are introducing RFID technology, and those in the food production industry are beginning to be aware that they have little option but to move with the changes.
"Food manufacturers in the past have tended to differentiate themselves on price and customer service," said McLeod. "Now we are seeing a third consideration: brand protection. And this can be seen up and down the supply chain."