Manitoba and IBM to track food “from farm to fork”

The Government of Manitoba is working with IBM Canada to develop a food tracking system that could help improve market recalls, food quality, and reputation as a safe food source to export markets.

The project aims at tracking every animal, piece of fruit, vegetable, grain or oilseed from the place it was grown or raised to the truck it was transported on, to the processing plant, to the grocery store where it’s sold to the consumer.

IBM is acting as a systems integrator for Manitoba and demonstrated a proof-of-concept using historical data last September.

One of the benefits of such a system will be the ability to pinpoint the origin of a disease that appears in the food chain, says Wayne Lees, chief veterinary officer with the Government of Manitoba.

“It’s important to have food traceability from farm all the way to the fork,” he says. “It’s important to be able to follow foods backwards and forwards, up and down the production chain.”

There are 13 million food-borne illnesses in Canada reported to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency each year. The agency posts new alerts for unsafe products to its Web site daily. Sometimes those illnesses can lead to serious economic repercussions. The 2003 to 2006 mad cow infections in Alberta is still seeing ramifications.

At the time, both the U.S. and Mexico had temporary bans on Canadian beef products. The Federal government had to step in to support cattle farmers with more than $1.2 billion in aid over three years.

“We need a system from the point animals are alive, up to the point they’re slaughtered and become food products,” Lees says. “Disease control is a major issue for the livestock industry.”

It seems the export of animal products across borders can be stopped at the drop of a hat in a day and age that is health conscious and sensitive to the dangers of disease.

Currently, China continues to exercise a ban on Alberta pork products after a herd of pigs was found to have been infected with the H1N1 (swine flu). This even though swine flu can’t be transmitted by eating pork products.

A traceability system could help minimize the impact of an animal disease incident, says John Graham, services executive at IBM Canada Ltd.

Such a system would allow a disease to be traced back its source, and then those herds could be put into quarantine, he says. “You could also determine what other animals or people the [infected] herds came into contact with.”

A thorough tracking system allows a government to assure foreign countries that it has a disease under control, he adds. An important step in keeping trade barriers open.

In IBM’s proof of concept for Manitoba, it tapped historical data from the feed used for cattle and swine. It tracked the feed all the way through the food industry vertical – from the truckers transporting it to the farms, the slaughterhouses for the livestock that consumed it, right to the grocery store that sold the meat. IBM examined how the records flowed from organization to organization and found each step was independent from the last.

“We mapped all that information and linked it together electronically,” Graham says. “It’s all about linking the information together.”

IBM’s Oslo-based partner TraceTracker Innovation ASA provided the Web portal software that facilitates information sharing. It acts as middleware that interprets the different systems used by each player in the food chain and then shares the relevant data to make tracking possible. The software provides ‘pointers’ to the information needed to follow food through each step of the chain.

It’s analogous to how the banking system allows your debit card to work at banking machines around the world, Graham explains.

“You don’t even think about the transaction, it just works,” he says. “Behind the scenes, those institutions are swapping the information needed to make your money come out of your account in the currency you requested, at a fee that you agreed to. They share the information they need to and nothing else.”

While middleware will provide the system for sharing information, a method for unique identification is still needed. In Manitoba, that method will likely take on many different forms that follow the same standard, Lees says.

“The technology isn’t nearly as important as the standard,” he says. “We want to track where products come from and where they go.”

Different identification methods make sense in different scenarios – a RFID tag in a cow’s ear, a bar code on a basket of tomatoes – and different methods can communicate the same standard of information. Manitoba plans to get on board with GS1 Canada, a global non-profit standards organization that is developing a Global Traceability Standard (GTS).

“GTS makes traceability systems possible on a global scale, for both small and large organizations, all along the supply chain, no matter what enabling technologies are used,” says Sarah Charuk, a spokesperson with GS1 Canada.

The organization has already developed a Produce Traceability Initiative that is sponsored by the Canadian Produce Marketing Association and other industry organizations.

Seattle-based Impinj Inc. is a RFID manufacturer that provides chips for produce tracking purposes. The chips prove an effective way to track food without disrupting already-established business processes, says Michael Manley, senior director of health and life sciences RFID at Impinj.

“You just need one good field boss that you can train with the RFID reader,” he says. “From that point, you have traceability all the way back to the piece of land that it was pulled from.”

Tags are placed on baskets containing produce that was just picked, Manley explains. Then before it is loaded on the truck it is scanned by the field boss with a RFID reader that is equipped with a GPS device. That way, its time and location are now associated with the unique code given by the RFID tag.

Those same bins are tracked for the time they spend on the truck, in a cooling unit, and all the way out into grocery stores. So if there’s a problem, they can trace it back to the source and shut down the affected lots until a solution is found.

Food brands are becoming concerned about consumer’s perception of food safety and are pushing RFID tags as an effective tracking method, Manley says. But it’s still early days.

“It’s certainly not ubiquitous by any stretch,” he says. “It’s a very difficult supply chain because it’s so fragmented and there are so many small growers.”

Whatever the method chosen to track food products through the supply chain, in IBM’s view Manitoba – or Canada – doesn’t have the luxury of time to get a working system in place.

“We don’t think that Canada has long to get this done, because we are losing export marketers to some of our competitors,” Graham says. “There are people who think it has to happen in less than five years.”

If it doesn’t, problems will arise even before then. Starting Jan. 1 of 2010, the European Union will require that all cattle coming from Canada be age and source verified. It’s fallout from mad cow, and its catching the attention of both the federal and provincial governments.

Manitoba is working to have its system in place soon. But it’s hard to nail down a distinct timeline, Lees says. “It’ll be months to a year from now.”

Certain components are in place now, but the links between them have to be built, he adds.

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