Food industry cooks up plan to track product safety

A group of food industry stakeholders is coming together to help create a system that will one day track the majority of the food we eat from its origin to the corner store.

A mandate from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada says that

by 2008, 80 per cent of food in Canada must be traceable. While the deadline is years away, the task is monumental, said Joe Zenobio, chief operating officer of the Electronic Commerce Council of Canada (ECCC), one of four agencies that has united to help define what’s required.

“”Right now there is a series of proprietary solutions in place to track food in the country including some software solutions lead by private industry, while others are led by certain associations such as the Canadian Cattleman’s Association which an ear tagging process in place,”” Zenobio said.

“”I don’t think the approach will be farm to fork right out of the gate,”” said Zenobio. “”First we want to (track) manufacturer to retailer shelf and that will then allow the consumer to be protected. If something needs to be pulled it can be pulled and fundamentally that’s what we’re trying to get to. If we control the middle part of the journey, from a consumer protection perspective, that should suffice.””

In addition to the ECCC, the alliance is made up of representatives from the Canadian Council of Grocery Distributors, which includes large retailers such as Sobeys and Loblaws, as well as the Food and Consumer Products Manufacturers of Canada and the Canadian Federation of Independent Grocers.

The first goal is to establish a standard that will be endorsed and sanctioned by all involved so that if there is a product recall the information can be located easily.

“”The discussions we’ve had with Agriculture Canada is they want to standardize the system across Canada and make it flexible enough to meet the various sectors that are engaged in beef, pork, chicken — even certain types of produce that are at risk and some shelf staple products,”” said Zenobio. “”It has to be scalable to various different types of food products. And it has to be consistent with what’s happening internationally — it would not serve us well to create a solution just for fish in Canada when a significant portion of it is exported around the world.””

The primary argument for having a system to trace food is that if there is an outbreak of something such as E.coli, it is easier to go back and contain the problem. But it is a difficult thing to create, says Prof. Doug Powell, scientific director of the Food Safety Network at the University of Guelph.

“”That’s why they have a timeline of 2008,”” says Powell. “”It’s a huge undertaking. You could trace lots of stuff but there is a huge cost involved.””

Powell says food tracking does exist in some areas of food production already, but there are limitations to how far certain items are followed into the supply chain.

For example, greenhouse tomatoes are packed in boxes that can be traced to the farm of origin by a code appearing on the box. The problem is once those tomatoes arrive at the grocery store the tomatoes are dumped together.

“”That’s why you need these various sectors to agree on some ground rules and sure the big stores may be able to do this, but what about the little ones?”” said Powell. “”This is like standards-setting in computers, it takes years.””

Cost is one concern already expressed by food manufacturers around the implementation of a food safety tracking system.

“”It has to be balanced because you and I have no interest in paying $50 a kilo for ground beef,”” said Zenobio. “”Obviously any system we implement has to be cost effective. The reason for the ECCC implementing ECCnet is because there is a need in the marketplace to have one solution and one that leverages the economies of scale as opposed to Loblaws and Sobeys and Kraft creating another solution.””

According to Dan Lutz, traceability team leader with the Agriculture and Food in Guelph, financial assistance will be made available to aid in the development of the system.

“”We’re not tied to one particular technology. While there are many potential technologies, we have to identify an overall solution,”” he said.

The ECCC is a non-profit association and is considered the barcode expert in Canada — the technology that will probably be at the center of any plan to trace the nation’s food supply. The ECCC also built ECCNet — a database repository with close to 200,000 specific products available to retailers.

“”Any identification system will have to be based on a barcode or radio frequency and we’re experts in that field and ultimately it will have to tie to international standards, so it leads us to be at the front end of this,”” said Zenobio.

The ECCC has retained Justin Sherwood, vice-president of Foodservice and Ontario Public Policy for the Canadian Council of Grocery Distributors, for a six-month period to develop a proposal for tracing food that would be built on international standards.

“”My first mode of attack will be to leverage the relationship my association has with retailers and distributors, to connect with the various commodity groups, understand what their vision of a traceability solution looks like so we can build a community around this project. In absence of a shared vision of where we want to get, this thing is not going anywhere,”” said Sherwood. “”The technology is there in one form or another and the will is there. It’s just — are we talking about the same thing?

The first step is to define the standards, said Zenobio. “”In consultation with the stakeholders and the associations involved in this we want to define the standards and say this is how we’re going to identify a product, here’s the tagging that’s going to go on, here’s the number of digits, here’s why.””

“”Our expectation is that through our stakeholders including agriculture Canada, and agencies like Canada Customs, we have to be able to satisfy U.S. requirements so the need for consultation and need to ensure that Canadian standards can meet American standards has to happen.””

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