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Food Traceability and Recall: Ingredient for Food Safety

Monday, 04 July, 2016, 08 : 00 AM [IST]
Ashutosh Upadhyay and Anurag Singh
The contemporary food supply chain is expected to adequately provide information that consumers and other concerned bodies need to know such as variety of the food attributes, country of origin, animal welfare, and genetic engineering related issues. For this, effective food traceability system is important. Long before there was any attempt to legislate for traceability, responsible food manufacturers, in their own enlightened self-interest, operated their own traceability schemes. These were usually based on the concept widely known as “one-up, one-down,” (OUOD).

The identification of the origin of food and feed ingredients and food sources is of key importance to safeguard the consumers, particularly when products may leave to a health hazard including food allergies. Traceability facilitates and precisely targets the recall or withdrawal of foods when necessary; enables consumers to be provided with targeted and accurate information concerning implicated products; and is crucial to the investigation of the causes of food poisoning and other contamination outbreaks. Thus traceability is an indispensable feature of food safety.

Exploring the Terms

In general, traceability measures can be used to improve the management of risks related to food safety and animal health issues; guarantee products’ authenticity and to give reliable information to customers and thereby improve products’ quality and processes. The term traceability may be defined as

  • Ability to follow the movement of a food through specified stage(s) of production, processing and distribution – Codex Alimentarius Commission
  • Ability to trace the history, application or location of an entity by means of recorded identifications – International Standards Organization (ISO)

But a wider definition of food chain traceability may be seen as under

  • Ability to trace and follow a food, feed, food-producing animals or substance intended to be, or expected to be, incorporated into a food or feed, through all stages of production, processing and distribution – European Union Regulation

Thus traceability is ahead of tracking the source and destination of food products and components as it provides ability to trace food products up and down the production chain through all stages of production and enhance the probability of finding the source of a problem. So virtually traceability covers whole supply chain from procurement, processing and distribution. Thus at the level of ingredients safety, authenticity, nature of being foods grade etc. are covered in traceability. It is an essential ingredient of the quality management system through which recall can be performed.

Recalls are actions taken by a firm to remove a product from the market. Recalls may be conducted on a firm’s own initiative, by statutory regulator (like Food Safety and Standards Authority of India i.e. FSSAI) request, or order. As per FSSAI, recalls are categorised in to two classes according to the level of hazard involved.

  • Class I Recalls are for unsafe food that could cause serious health problems or even death.
  • Class II Recalls are for food that are unlikely to cause any adverse health problem, but violate the rules and regulations.

The Class II sometimes may be confused with Market Withdrawal which occurs when a product has a minor violation that would not be subject to legal action. Here the firm removes the product from the market or corrects the violation e.g. product removed from the market due to tampering, without evidence of manufacturing or distribution problems.

Traceability and recall thereby are made possible by record keeping and referring the same when it is needed. For its implementation, important components are identification of what has to be traced, recording of the related data, establishing the links between all data recorded and sharing the data with proper communication protocols. Figures 1 to 4 further clarify the concept of traceability and recall.

Figure 1: General Traceability Concept, Source: http://www.intergen.co.nz

Figure 3: Understanding Recall
Source: FSSAI Food Safety Officers’ Training Manual Vol 5

Regulatory View Point
With regard to international trade, new legal requirements in mainly developed countries relating to traceability have recently been implemented, and in various sectors, importing countries have placed increasing pressure on exporting countries to comply with traceability requirements. These measures, however, must comply with the World Trade Organization agreements; they must be justified as having a sanitary or phytosanitary (SPS) objective or as having a legitimate objective. Indian Food Legislation also demands from Food Business Operators (FBOs) for minimum traceability of OUOD to realise recall in time. However FBOs such as food service sector such as restaurants, caterers and takeaway joints and food retailers are exempted from mandatory recall plan. But of course will require to have one or another kind of traceability in place for their business sake.

What and How to Implement?
Document like ISO 22005: 2007 titles as “Traceability in the feed and food chain — General principles and basic requirements for system design and implementation” are helpful in designing food traceability systems but of generic solution indicator mainly focussing on what to implement. There are several IT support systems available for recording the data and sharing the data. Here it is important to mention that GS 1 Global or GS 1 India is one body which has worked a lot on how to implement.

Food supply chains with geographically disseminated stakeholders entail efficient and unified track & trace systems which use standardised identifiers for uniquely and unambiguously identifying food items/ consignments through physical marking/labelling with barcodes/RFID tags using GS1 global standards. The same standards are used in enabling structured electronic information exchange between supply chain partners as well. GS1 Global Traceability Standards (GTS) were developed in 2005 with the active participation of food producers, buyers and regulators to meet core legislative and business requirements on food safety through traceability and recall. Readers can refer http://www.gs1.org/docs/traceability/Global_Traceability_Standard.pdf.

Food Ingredients and Traceability
As indicated earlier, food Ingredients are important aspects of traceability depending on the breadth and depth defined in the system for traceability. Further, in recent years, consumer confidence in the food supply has been shaken as a result of product recalls and other food scandals. Many consumers today want to know from where do their food and the ingredients that make it come from. An example would be the issues caused by melamine in baby formula.

Further, in food business, we talk about food grade ingredients. Many times we feel difficulty in finding universal definition of food grade ingredients like food flavours, being multi-ingredient in composition. However, guidance for what can be considered food grade is provided by multiple regulatory bodies around the world. But, variances in these standards from country to country make it difficult to keep track of the standards for flavoring ingredients in relation to the country where the product is being sold. New initiatives like the 2011 US Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) have recently added prerequisites for ingredients that may be considered food grade in the US. Authenticity of natural ingredients is significantly important nowadays. GMO use is also restricted or banned in several countries. All this brings in necessity of sound traceability system.

Enhancing Traceability
In cases where markets do not supply enough traceability for product differentiation, individual firms and industry groups have developed systems for policing and advertising the veracity of credence claims. Third-party safety/quality auditors are at the heart of these efforts e.g., Certification of Organic Foods. Government may also seek firms producing foods with due credence. In judiciously designing efficient traceability system one must differentiate between valuable quality attributes, those for which verification is needed, and less valuable attributes for which no verification is needed. For example, though consumers may desire verification that organic foods are indeed organic, no such verification is necessary for conventionally produced foods.

In cases where markets do not supply enough traceability for food safety traceback, a number of industries may group to ensure food safety and their own traceability protocols. Third-party certification is always relied upon to enhance the efficacy. To be competitive and compatible in global market it is better to take global standards for clarity in the process and protocols.

More and more industries should voluntarily deploy traceability using global standards beyond just mandates to improve efficiency and enhance their national and global market shares through assurance and visibility to food products from “farm to fork.” A shift from compliance traceability to value traceability is important in the present world market and could bring several benefits to the food industry, and consumers in the long run.

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