Food traceability and risk management before the farm gate

Peter Whittle, CEO and Co-founder, AgKonect © 2018

Thanks to John G. Keogh of Shantalla for valuable review

Traceability of food is a leading global news topic. Periodically there is a new crisis such as needles in strawberries, E. coli in leafy greens and Listeria in melons. Almost daily we read about traceability projects based on blockchain, and less frequently about the existing GS1 system of standards and barcoding. Emphasis is placed on tracking food from farm to market, so a problem can be traced back quickly to the source farm. But is that focus in the right place?

As soon as a product safety problem or risk is detected, the whole product line is often withdrawn from retail shelves and the supply chain is put on hold until the source is found and removed. The better the traceability to the farm gate, the faster the risk can be resolved and safe supply restored.

Besides the harm caused to consumers, there is great economic harm across the supply chain. An affected business probably won’t recover from a product safety event that caused serious illness or deaths. An entire industry, commodity or brand can experience reputational damage by being mistakenly implicated as a whole. The overall supply chain suffers losses as trade activity is limited and consumers change brands or supply sources.

Traceability back to the farm gate is only part of the story. We should be equally or more interested in systems to prevent the problem in the first place, and to find its actual source on or before the farm.

A key strategy for mitigating risk on farms is industry-based assurance schemes, in which the leading grocery retailers place food safety system requirements on their suppliers. These producers and packers have to be trained, have suitable facilities, assess their risk vulnerabilities and manage them to industry standards. They must become accredited, certify all produce, keep records to demonstrate compliance, then maintain their accreditation under periodic and often unannounced audit. In Australia, several industry schemes are being harmonised under the HARPS banner.

Most consumers would be astonished at the effort required of producers and packers of supermarket foods, especially fresh produce and meats. Businesses need to be highly organised and the cost of compliance is high. Data is a key farm cost component, in monitoring, record-keeping, certification and audit.

Businesses gain large efficiencies from an electronic system in which data is captured on smart devices and uploaded to a cloud platform that is auditable. Data integrity is enhanced if the devices capture the location, time, date and person associated with the activity record. This on-farm data is transformed into usable information that can be linked to supply chain traceability systems beyond the farm gate.

Mobile data systems, such as provided by AgKonect, can capture and manage all the data and information requirements for food safety assurance schemes. Additionally, a producer can customise their system to manage operations and capture data for any other process in the production chain, going right back to a farm block or tree. Data can be linked to a lot or batch number assigned to a production run. The lot or batch can then be linked to a product global trade item number (or GTIN) which is encoded into a product barcode. Some products such as leafy greens may be bundled onto a returnable tray, with a global returnable asset identifier (GRAI) encoded into the barcode label. A scan of the barcode label on the tray at a retail store informs the retailer which producer the number in the barcode label was assigned to. This is the essence of the GS1 system of standards and is the basis for traceability and trace-back. Provenance and product integrity information can even be provided through a web portal linked on the label.

Farmers know the importance of quality and consumer protection. An on-farm data system can provide usable information to a whole-of-supply-chain traceability systems. The farmer manages their own food safety business risks, achieving new management efficiencies and opportunities, while adding value to supply chain traceability.