Fruit & Vegetable Magazine

Features Business Food Safety
Farm to fork


November 30, 1999
By Treena Hein

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Traceability is currently voluntary in Canada, except for those who ship products to the U.S. But mandatory compliance with new laws regarding your produce and other farm products is coming.

Traceability is currently voluntary in Canada, except for those who ship products to the U.S. But mandatory compliance with new laws regarding your produce and other farm products is coming. The good news is that although it comes with operational adjustments and some costs, there are many benefits to a fully functional food traceability system for those in all parts of the food system, including you.

Traceability is defined as the ability to trace the current and historical location of harvested produce and other food products from one point in the supply chain to another. There are three parts: product identification, premises identification and movement tracking. The point of having a traceability system is first and foremost to be able to efficiently handle food safety emergencies – to isolate, investigate and rectify problems as quickly as possible, so that the impact on human health and life is minimized. Many believe that just having a traceability system in place will give added motivation for everyone in the system to ensure their food safety practices are adequate.

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Managing disease outbreaks, administering animal health programs and minimizing the economic fallout from food recalls will be easier and less costly. In addition, “(Traceability) also decreases the risk of unfounded liability claims by documenting who is and who is not part of the particular problem that has arisen,” says Allen Tyrchniewicz, president of Winnipeg-based Tyrchniewicz Consulting. “(Traceability also) becomes a tool for marketing and creates brand identity and loyalty for products.”

The Canadian government has set traceability policy goals and provincial governments, commodity groups and other agencies have taken preliminary steps to investigate which technologies and methods should be used. While most initiatives occurring across the country involve livestock, much progress is also being made in the produce sector.

Sponsored by the Canadian Produce Marketing Association, and the U.S.-based United Fresh Produce Association and Produce Marketing Association, the Produce Traceability Initiative (PTI) is designed to help the industry maximize the effectiveness of current trace-back procedures, while developing a standardized industry approach to enhance the speed and efficiency of traceability systems for the future. 

“The PTI outlines a course of action (7-step ‘Action Plan Implementation Toolkit’) to achieve supply chain-wide adoption of electronic traceability of every case of produce in the U.S. by the year 2012,” says Jane Proctor, CPMA vice president of policy and issue management. “These things will evolve, so keep checking our website (www.producetraceability.org).”

Mandatory programs to come

No national traceability regulations have yet been put forward here, simply because it’s too early in the process to do so. “To us, this is a partnership and we have to make sure it is possible for industry to meet regulatory requirements,” says Susie Miller, director general of the Food Value Chain Bureau (Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada Market and Industry Services Branch). Mandated federal traceability goals do exist for 2011, but Miller admits complete food systems traceability might not happen by then. “The members of the Canadian Council of Grocery Distributors feel they have adequate recall procedures in place,” adds Proctor, “and aren’t going to be asking members for PTI in the near future.”

Whatever form the traceability system for produce takes in Canada, Proctor believes it must focus on two main things – the requirements of target markets and compatibility with GS1 standards. GS1 is the leading global organization “dedicated to the design and implementation of global standards and solutions to improve the efficiency and visibility of supply and demand chains globally and across sectors.

“At this time, the only means of implementation of full chain electronic traceability that is fully workable for our industry is via bar codes,” says Proctor, “and even that is not without challenges for the produce sector.” In traceability systems with barcodes, “First of all, the codes must be human readable,” she says, meaning that numbers are placed below the barcodes in the event of a bar code scanning failure. Lot number and contents of cases are already typically labelled as human readable information now on cases of produce, and that practice will continue. This information is all farmers need to provide if they sell their produce to a packer who has the sales brand, says Proctor. However, if farmers are selling produce under their own farm brand and/or exporting produce to the U.S., they must produce their own bar code (assistance is available through GS1 Canada, www.gs1ca.org). “All bar codes contain a Global Trade Item Number (GTIN) with a unique company/brand prefix and other information,” Proctor notes. 

In the PTI system, bar codes are scanned throughout the supply chain as cases/pallets enter and exit packinghouses, warehouses and distribution centres.

“The information in the bar code links to information already resident in shipper/receiver systems – such as which GTIN refers to which company/brand and produce item/pack size,” says Proctor. “During human health emergencies, this information would be accessible to government decision-makers by contacting the appropriate point/organization in the supply chain.”

The other main technology being examined for traceability use in some parts of Canada is RFID chips (radio frequency identification chips). This technology has been used to track goods in retail supply chains all over the world for many years. The data on the chips is accessed wirelessly at a short distance and the information can be added to as a shipment moves. RFID tags are also, for example, featured in new enhanced driver’s licences in Ontario and B.C. to allow quicker border crossings. Border security personnel are able to read the chip as your vehicle pulls up, and a protective sleeve is provided that prevents the chip from being ‘read’ at other times by anyone not authorized by you to do so.

“RFID would be easier, but it’s not ready for produce,” observes Proctor. “The current RFID technology, for example, can be affected by high moisture levels and metal.”

National and provincial initiatives

In 2005, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada created a federal, provincial and territorial Traceability Task Team, which led to the creation of the National Agriculture and Food Traceability System (NAFTS). This system is initially focussed on livestock and poultry. As stated on the AAFC website, “NAFTS will be built upon national standards to ensure credibility, integrity, and efficiency. All parties with legitimate needs and rights shall be able to access information under common requirements that protect the privacy of individuals and proprietary information. NAFTS will be built using a phased approach – recognizing each sector/user’s unique risks and opportunities.”

“We have a close relationship with industry and we all want to make [traceability] happen,” notes Miller. “Our purpose is strictly emergency management.”

She says how farmers or each commodity group accesses and uses the traceability data in the system for other purposes – such as marketing – is their decision.

Premises identification initiatives are being handled provincially, with Alberta and Quebec currently the only jurisdictions where it is mandatory. With regard to the other two ‘pillars’ of traceability – product identification and movement-tracking – Miller says industry is leading initiatives in these areas. In most provinces and territories, this means traceability systems are being developed and implemented by commodity groups with the assistance and funding of provincial Ministries of Agriculture.

Falcon Ridge Farms in Kelowna, B.C., received funding last year to develop traceability, funding that was provided by the B.C. Ministry of Agriculture and Land’s Enterprise Infrastructure Traceability Program. Established in 2009, the program distributes successful commodity group and farm business applicants with federal money (under the ‘Growing Forward’ funding framework) to study and implement traceability. Falcon Ridge produces many products, including barbecue sauce and honey, but their echinacea-blended teas and health products are sold on a large scale, including in the U.S. market. “With the funding, we purchased software and a barcode scanner,” says co-owner Marlys Wolfe. “We now put bar codes on everything that have our GTIN and lot numbers included, and all the information on shipments leaving the farm is automatically recorded. It’s much more efficient. The funding has given us the incentive to upgrade traceability where we probably wouldn’t otherwise, due to time and energy constraints.” 

Similarly to B.C., the Alberta Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development has three programs through with commodity groups can access federal Growing Forward funding. These are the RFID Technology Assistance Project, which provides software and hardware for feedlots, the Traceability Pilot Program where livestock industry participants are given funding to explore traceability technology solutions, and the Traceability Training program for organizations that wish to provide education on traceability.

In Ontario, OnTrace is an industry organization (that does, however, receive government funding) that is handling traceability for all commodity groups. It was incorporated in 2006, four years after the Ontario On-Farm Food Safety Initiative began. In Québec, a nonprofit industry-government partnership called Agri-Traçabilité Québec was established in 2001. All provincial entities continue to communicate with federal and other provincial government agencies to ensure coordinated traceability efforts.

“Canada’s agriculture and food industry competes on a global stage,” concludes Tyrchniewicz. “We have a reputation for safe, high quality food…and we will find reliable and credible ways to communicate this to consumers at home and abroad. Traceability is a large part of that.” ❦

For more information, visit the Produce Traceability Initiative (PTI) website at www.producetraceability.org or GS1 Canada at www.gs1ca.org .