Traceability Provides More Than Safety

One of the most important tasks we face in the produce industry is creating viable traceback systems. During the spinach outbreak last fall, it was painfully clear that our industry’s many levels of distribution complicate the process of tracing the origins of commodities during an outbreak investigation. And this issue surfaces in all market sectors – from grocery stores to restaurants to schools.

Three bills have recently passed their first test of approval by making it through the California Senate Agriculture Committee and on to the Senate Health Committee. The first bill will expand the authority of the state’s health department to impound or destroy contaminated produce. The second bill requires strict standards for growers of leafy greens and the third bill calls for an efficient traceback system to prevent industry-wide losses in the event of another outbreak.

These bills will affect a large portion of the produce industry and will certainly serve as models for other state and even national legislation to focus on good traceback plans. If we want to avoid a commodity-wide recall in the future and hundreds of millions of dollars in lost sales, we must drive home the importance of an effective traceback plan at all levels of distribution.

Document, Document, Document

In my travels, I see many kinds of labeling and coding systems. Some are more effective than others. There are stickers, ink-jet printing and even hand-written codes. But the one place that really needs the code is often overlooked – on the paperwork. A barcode system is one of the best because there are multiple stickers with the same code that can be used on the shipping paperwork, as well as the boxes that travel with the product to its destination.

I’m not here to advocate that everyone use barcodes to the exclusion of all other systems, but I am recommending that we think of shipping records as an extension of the coding system. To rely on the carton as the only code-bearer is to risk breaking the chain. A sticker can fall off, an ink-jet printed code can be illegible or a hand-written code could be missing altogether.

We have all heard from food safety auditors in this business – “You can’t prove you did it unless you write it down.” Documentation must become the new focus for produce traceback systems. There must be a renewed effort to implement a meaningful coding system on packaging and document those codes on the shipping paperwork at each step.

Farm Codes

At the farm level, coding starts with the day of harvest, the farm or field it is harvested from and the crew that harvested the product. For example, a simple code using the Julian date, a letter or number code for the farm and field location and a different number or letter code identifying the harvest crew can be placed on each container as it leaves the farm. Pallet tagging is not enough – each container needs a code.

One way to make sure this is implemented is for all buyers to require this step for every container that leaves the farm. In addition, receivers can enforce this requirement by inspecting the incoming product to make sure this is happening. Accountability is a key that can unlock traceback implementation.

Production Codes

One place that poses a problem for our industry in keeping track of produce origins lies in the pooling steps of washing, sizing or cutting commodities in packinghouses and processing facilities. It is imperative that management implement steps to document a change in loads on the production line. Not only is this important for grower pay-out information, but the code can be documented for food safety purposes and recorded on the production records.

All containers in a production line should be tagged with a new production code that can be traced back to the grower, the harvest date and, if applicable, a packinghouse code. A production code might be as simple as a Julian date for the date of packing or an order number. That day’s production or that order number should be tied back (through production records) to the grower/harvest codes for all products packed that day or for that order.

Using Traceability to Improve Market Performance

In the produce business, there may be specialized “credence attributes” that must be documented and verified in order to build sales. Many food products have credence attributes that are difficult or impossible for consumers to detect. The only way to verify the existence of these attributes is through a record system that establishes their creation and preservation. For instance, no viable market could exist for dolphin-safe tuna, fair-trade coffee or organic produce if there was no traceability and certification process. That takes diligent record keeping and documentation.

Good recordkeeping procedures are important for food safety purposes, too, but a company that designs strong traceability records can benefit in other ways. For instance, production codes can be used to improve the efficiencies of a specific packing line, thus lowering costs. Or, pack-out records can be tracked to determine the highest quality raw product, improving a finished product’s quality and resulting in an increase in price.

No matter how the information is used, the industry needs to increase its vigilance in tracking products for the safety and security of the consumer. Records and labeling are the keys to preventing another outbreak investigation that implicates an entire commodity.

We cannot afford another industry-wide recall. Whole commodity groups are getting a black eye for isolated contamination incidents. And consumers are making purchasing decisions based on their perception of safety. If we stumble again, it might be only a matter of time before the public trust is lost and whole product lines suffer.

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