Traceability Trends: DNA barcodes and a risk-based model

Tracking and traceability issues have always been important considerations in the produce industry, but because of food safety and inventory control concerns, it has been top-of-mind for more companies of late.

Currently, a variety of measures are used to monitor and report product as it moves through the chain of custody, but things are changing—and fast.

Anthony Zografos, founder and CEO of DNATREK, based in Oakland, California, believes the globalization of the food supply chain will result in much higher complexity and an increasing need for traceability in the years ahead.

“However, exactly because of the global nature of the food supply chain, reliance on regional or national traceability standards will not be a viable approach,” he said. “Cost will be a key driver and this will result in the traceability paradigm shifting towards a risk based approach.”

In his opinion, traceability will not be a by-product of systems intended to promote supply-chain efficiencies but will instead rely on stand-alone systems with very low implementation burdens that will allow management of the key risks in the supply chain as opposed to providing full supply chain visibility.

Jennifer McEntire, food safety/trace expert vice president and chief science officer for the Acheson Group, says there are a number of sophisticated methods already out there, and others emerging (DNA barcodes, looking at the DNA of the product itself, fingerprints associated with the products), with the future lying in technology.

“There are technological solutions related to either having one centralized database, and having things in the cloud that are linked—sort of a Google of traceability,” she said. “The challenge is really industry adoption. There is a lot of apprehension in getting people to take the next step and take advantage of these opportunities.”

McEntire feels that the industry as a whole won’t do anything until further FDA regulations come about, but even when they do, it won’t be adequate.

“One of the things to pay attention to is the industry-driven initiatives, as I believe we will see more progress on that front in the years ahead,” she said. “We are looking at standardizing info that is being communicated using lot numbers, keeping track of changes as products are exiting systems and making sure all these things are accounted for.”

DNA Testing On the Rise

The ability of using DNA testing on food products is already available, but companies shy away from it because of cost and the unfamiliarity with it all.

Zografos feels that DNA testing of product will remain a useful tool for certain types of food products, but not as widespread as others believe.

“Because of the globalization and increasing complexity and diversity of the supply chain and the cost of testing, its implementation will remain very limited,” he says. “The use of DNA-based barcoding systems will expand because of their accuracy, low cost and ease of global implementation.”

The system DNATREK has developed is a spray-on tagged DNA based edible “barcode” that applies all traceability information directly on the product surface and can be read in minutes.  

“If barcodes have been applied to the product at multiple nodes, all traceability information can be read concurrently, again in just a few minutes,” Zografos said. “The implementation burden is very low, recurring costs are lower than any of today’s methods and combined with standard inventory control systems it can offer a highly effective traceability solution that will satisfy the expectations, needs and requirements of producers, consumers and regulators.”

When it comes to DNA testing, McEntire feels some public perception issues need to be overcome before it’s made more mainstream.

Further Matters

A slew of other factors will play a role in traceability standards in the future, including advancements in labels, environmental monitoring, warehousing, logistics and trucking.

“Intelligent labels and intelligent packing materials will incorporate monitors for storage conditions including temperature, humidity and other relevant environmental parameters,” Zografos said. “Warehousing, logistics and trucking represent vulnerabilities from a food defense/food safety standpoint. This is the case today as well, but the globalization of the food supply chain will result in increasing reliance on logistics. Again, a risk-based approach will likely define the traceability approach.”

Ed Treacy, vice president, supply chain efficiencies for the Produce Marketing Association and co-chairman of the Produce Traceability Initiative working group, said standardized, scalable case labels will soon be the requirement and the norm when it comes to traceability—and not just in North America.

“It’s a very efficient way of transmitting data between trading partners, as the key information is on the label and each trading partner in the supply chain that gets the case can scan it and track it,” he says. “Labels are very new to our industry, but we’re seeing the same requirements right across the world.”

Treacy also feels that temperature and environmental tracking will become more real-time thanks to advancements in cell and satellite technology and its decreasing cost.

A Look Ahead

Although no one can say for certain what traceability will look like a decade from now, one thing everyone can agree on is that it will not look like it looks today.

“Traceback in a global supply chain with today’s systems is essentially impossible,” Zografos said. “The geographical areas where most risk is introduced in the food supply chain are the areas where they can least afford to implement sophisticated traceability systems. Track and trace will be based on systems that ‘instantly’ trace product back through the supply chain to the nodes where most risk is introduced.”

For Treacy, his prediction of the future includes more real-time electronic messaging being involved, so that an accurate history of the product all the way through operation is revealed — who had it, where it went and what was the temperature and humidity of the product as it went through the entire supply chain.

Ten years from now, McEntire expects to see a whole let less paper being used in the process.

“Once we move away from paper, we can leverage the technology that is out there. When there’s a whole lot more data available electronically, we can begin to mine that data and look for trends, which leads to better traceability,” she said. “Ultimately, it comes down to cost. Adding codes or labels, or scanning labels, all require time and effort and resources and I don’t expect to see voluntary adoption.”

Keith Loria,contributing writer

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