Traceability and trust
Track and trace is no longer sufficient when it comes to traceability requirements according to Zespri’s market and quality assurance manager, Catherine Richardson.
She told the Food Safety Risk and Compliance Conference in Auckland in mid-march that food exporters traditionally had felt they needed traceability so they could recall products if anything went wrong, to trace the source of any problem. But now their emphasis is more about transparency from paddock to plate in order to know a lot more about their goods at any point in the supply chain.
“Consumer trust in our brand is paramount and transparency is implicit in trust,” she said.
Everybody wants traceability, new technologies promised it and lots of people are selling it.
“But where does it fit?”
Catherine, who is also an independent board member of The Food Safety Science and Research Centre, said a lot of what was happened at Zespri was transferable to other industries. Zespri has 2,500 local growers as well as 2,000 in several northern hemisphere countries, and markets 5.5 billion pieces of fruit annually, exporting to over 50 countries to several million buyers.
“We’re very customer-focused and invest a lot in behind the brand,” she said.
Companies need to define their traceability needs and establish their foundation data, particularly how they identify their product. Standardisation is critical. They need to record how and when it moves from one location to another, and what happens at each location, as well as interoperability along the chain. Product data needs to be captured on arrival, any changes and actions that happen recorded, then dispatch details must be linked to the product ID.
Consideration is also needed as to who is going to use this data.
“We are rethinking this at the moment,” Catherine said.
Traceability data is required for finance reasons, with Zespri able to pay for fruit at different rates for each harvest from each block on each orchard. The information is also used throughout the supply chain to optimise different quality attributes. Pre-shipping inspection results are necessary to meet access requirements for different markets.and in the market it needs to be known if fruit met customers’ specific requirements.
Emerging users of traceability data are retailers who want real time information to provide assurance to their customers. Consumers need to know they can trust the product they buy, where it came from, if it is safe and if the supply chain producing it is ethical and sustainable. Growers also want to know who is buying their fruit and how they can interact with consumers.
Zespri launched its Producetraceability Initiative (PTI) in 2008, with a vision of a supply chain-wide adoption of electronic traceability. It defines standards for identifying produce at case level through barcodes, and requires shippers and receivers to scan product in and out.there is the capability to make the product traceable, but many links in the chain are not prepared to implement systems or invest in scanning, she said. Some players implement their own systems, using their own data, with no end-to-end continuity and so no interoperability. It isn’t uncommon to see produce at the retail stage in packaging with several labels attached, each applied at a different step in the chain.
A Zespri pallet card traces the fruit in every pack it contains back to where it was produced, the packing site which handled it and the time this took place. But this is replaced by another pallet card when the fruit arrives in market, so every pack can be traced back to the arrival point and the time that repacking was carried out. But there is no way of linking the two pallet cards, which is one of the reasons why PTI doesn’t work, she said.the systems can’t talk to each other, there is a lack of commitment and a lack of understanding on the why and what.there is also a lack of resource when it comes to equipment, time, IT systems and funding.
PTI works “sometimes, sort of”.
“But it just tracks the location of the product, it does not provide any transparency.”
The most commonly touted new technology is blockchain, which was said to have the potential to revolutionise the fresh fruit industry. There are a small number of well publicised success stories of it providing perfect traceability in real time.
But the fundamentals of traceability still apply. Businesses have to define their needs, establish foundation data and record how and when the product moves from one location to another. Operators throughout the supply chain need to still be committed and resourced, and process is fundamental.
“New technologies will provide some excellent tools, but they won’t provide the solution,” Catherine said.
Effective traceability is about understanding what is required, developing good processes, and supporting this with technology.
“Blockchain doesn’t happen magically on its own,” she said.
It too needs resource and commitment.
Asked about other technologies she said QR (Quick Response) codes could be used, which is easy, but they could bring up a false story.
“You only get that wrong once,” she said.
“Trust is so important.”
Products could be identified by spray or by attaching identification to fruit by isotope technology. Both could be used to give the authenticity, to tell consumers where the fruit they bought came from, especially in China, “where there are more Zespri labels than fruit”.
Asked if part of the answer was simplifying the supply chain, she said more and more it was trying to deliver fruit from a Zespri store direct to a retailer.
“We are doing it in China and we will do it in the United States,” she said.
“We can’t do it everywhere, but it’s important that we end up with partners that we can trust.we have eliminated them where we can’t.”
However, distributors are still needed in some far-flung markets such as Mongolia.
Earlier in a panel discussion on emerging challenges in food safety, Catherine singled out climate change, saying there could be unexpected floods which would result in contamination of product. And different pests and diseases might bring requirements for more agricultural chemical use.
“There’s a lot of very complex changes you need to think about if you’re a food producer,” she said.
“More food will be produced in cities, but if that’s not well managed there are risks.”
There are also potential food safety risks with manufactured vegetable-based foods produced to taste like meat, which were not even being thought about yet.
“The biggest risk is the unknown,” she said.
“We can be most prepared by thinking outside the square.”
Social media comments which are not based on credible science but on consumers’ worst fears are also an issue.
“The real messages get lost about what happens between the customer’s fridge and their kitchen bench,” she said.
“And if you leave a void, social media will fill it.”
But food safety is not a competitive space, Catherine said, and more collaboration could see different players sharing information, from which they could all benefit.