The recent outbreak of listeriosis in South Africa, according to the World Health Organisation the largest ever recorded globally, not only highlights the importance of quality control in the food manufacturing process – but also why traceability throughout the food supply chain is critically important.
By Neville Levinthal, head of business development at Braintree, the consulting and integration division of Vox
Traceability in the feed and food chain falls under the ISO 22005 standard that provides general principles and basic requirements for system design and implementation. Underpinning this, is the ability to follow the movement of various foods and animal feeds throughout the different stages of production, processing, and distribution.
As such, adherence to the standard makes it possible to locate any product, anywhere in the food chain. Since this [traceability] contributes to searching out where non-conformity to regulations has taken place, it becomes easy to withdraw or recall products when and where necessary.
Track and trace
There are two kinds of movement vital to the success of a traceability system – tracking and tracing.
As the name suggests, tracking is the ability to identify the destination of the product and to follow its path as it moves from the manufacturing unit towards the final point of sale, service, or consumption. It is therefore a forward-moving process.
Tracing, on the other hand, is having the ability to recreate the history of the product in the food chain and identify where it originated from and where its movement went. As with tracking, the information can be for a single unit or a batch of food within the supply chain. It is a retrospective process.
In essence, these are the elements that constitute traceability. However, these systems still need to be practical to apply while complying with the applicable regulations. They can only be effective if the information and systems are verifiable, applied consistently and equitably, result-oriented, and cost-effective to implement.
Negotiating a highly complex web
Ultimately, traceability must be standardised because the entire supply chain is interdependent with numerous stakeholders involved. Without standardisation, the complexity of the food supply chain would mean there would be no common ‘language’ or system to track and trace goods.
One product can involve several companies from where the ingredients, content, and packaging have been supplied. It begins with the origin of the food and its ingredients, and continues with elements such as processing history, definition of the batch, links between manufacturing batches, methods of production, methods of analysis, storage, personnel involved, the entire supply and distribution chain system, and so on.
It is critical that product integrity, authenticity, and identification at all the stages of the supply chain (including food inspection and certification) are completed and traced to build consumer confidence.
Notably, a spin-off benefit of using a traceability system is to prevent unfair trade practices by putting in place Food Safety Management System (FSMS) and record maintenance.
Harnessing new technology
Arguably, traceability plays an important role in consumer safety through swift and targeted recalls and withdrawals. These can only be performed effectively if a compliant system is implemented. Not only does it protect the health of consumers, but also the brand image/reputation of the organisation.
Developing a traceability system needs something that supports food safety and quality, meets customer specifications, can determine the history or origin of the product, and facilitates the withdrawal and recall of products.
It must also be able to identify those organisations in the animal feed and food chain that were responsible; verify specific information about the product; and communicate information to relevant stakeholders and consumers. Finally, it must fulfil local, regional, national, and international regulations, and help improve the effectiveness, productivity, and profitability of the organisation.
The past month has seen many organisations in South Africa scramble to do damage control and protect the reputation of their brands. While some have been able to mitigate risk and brand damage, the impact on the industry would have been more significant had it not been for traceability systems.