How can you ensure that the food on your plate is what it claims to be? That seems to be the question that consumers have been asking after a spate of food scares. Incidents from the horse meat scandal in the UK, melamine tainted milk in China, to the plasticizers in Taiwan and the cucumber scare in Europe have led to a greater demand for quality assurance, both in terms of food safety as well as authenticity.
In this age where consumers are increasingly aware and involved in knowing the origins of their food, tracking and traceability measures have become an indicator of quality, and a hallmark of how prepared a manufacturer is when things go awry along the supply chain.
Proper traceability measures allow manufacturers to track down the error source and recall the affected items immediately. Limiting the scope of recall to only items that are truly affected will help companies save costs on an already expensive process. More importantly, the ability to find the error source quickly helps in managing consumer confidence while also reducing the costs of negative publicity on one’s brand image.
Tamer Tatlici, Bostanli, Turkey
A side effect of this is speculation, which implicates parties that are otherwise innocent. Such was the case in the event of the contaminated cucumbers in Germany, where vegetable sales across all of Europe were affected when the original contamination source was actually fenugreek seeds from Egypt.
Essentially, quality can only be assured with the availability of information. This includes knowing the origins of your product, from raw materials to finished product, and the places that it has passed through.
Information is exactly what the consumer needs. It provides reassurance that the food manufacturers and suppliers are taking the necessary efforts to ensure the quality of their food. Transparency is an indicator of supplier confidence, where adequate efforts in enhancing product safety have been taken, and also aids consumers in making informed choices.
According to the Safety Gauge 2012 survey conducted by TÜV SÜD, 68 percent of the respondents have deemed it very important, while 23 percent found it quite important for companies to improve the transparency of their product’s safety.
Additionally, 40 percent of the surveyed consumers were much more likely to purchase a product that has clear packaging on its quality, such as the safety standards achieved. In particular, transparency and clear packaging displaying product quality seems to hold more importance in China. About 91 percent of the respondents from China felt it is very important that companies improve the safety of their products.
Food safety has been a growing concern in China ever since the melamine-tainted milk incident. Its effects have persisted even now, where consumers in China have been opting for foreign milk powder brands over local ones.
It has escalated to the point where people have taken to buying milk powder in bulk overseas and bringing them home to China, regardless of whether it costs more or if it is really more nutritious. In response to this purchasing behaviour, countries like Hong Kong have limited of the amount of milk powder allowed out of the country.
Promoting Product SafetyUnderstanding the importance of food safety, together with a greater consumer demand for product quality, it is not surprising that companies have taken steps to ensure product safety.
About 52 percent of the business respondents in the TÜV SÜD study are confident that the entire supply chain fulfils product safety requirements. They also foresee themselves significantly exceeding governmental requirements on food safety in the next five years.
Despite a greater emphasis on product safety, only 46 percent of the respondents are able to trace every component of their products throughout the entire supply chain. One of the challenges to greater traceability is cost.
Companies already spend an average of 13.6 percent of their total production cost on food safety, and expect it to increase by about 20 percent if they were to achieve the best safety standard in the industry.
However, the benefits of traceability clearly outweigh the cost in the eyes of Scottish food and drinks suppliers. According to James Withers, chief executive of Scotland Food and Drink, “they know that it is important because you need to reassure your customers on safety and environmental standards.” It is vital for staying ahead of the game.
He also highlighted how virtually everyone in Scotland is a member of the quality assurance program even though it is voluntary. “Most of our customers at home won’t take a product unless it is quality assured. Farmers have embraced it, and the fishing industry has embraced it as well,” he explained. Some of the traceability measures are required by law as well. For instance, European regulations have dictated that the origin of where an animal is born or slaughtered is required for fresh beef.
Need For SpeedThe inculcation of the Food Safety Modernization Act by the FDA has also required companies to be able to trace back where their products were received and track forward where it was sent. Furthermore, FDA will have a mandatory recall authority over all food products, and companies are required to verify that their foreign suppliers have sufficient controls for safety in place.
This severely highlights the need for adequate tracking and traceability measures if companies are to be able to track the journey of its food items and subsequent components within such a short time frame. This is where automation comes in.
Enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems are an example of how monitoring complex supply chains can be made simpler, by digitising information and removing the hassle of recording things down on paper. The drawback of paper records are its inability to be exchanged freely within the supply chain, in addition to illegible handwriting or a greater chance of human errors.
Some ERP systems are also equipped with a recall or tracking function, and integrated with Microsoft Word or Outlook, such that in one button, notifications are sent immediately to suppliers and customers in bi-directional recalls. Such systems accord speed and precision in rooting out the problem and responding to it.
Apart from the typical recording of shipping information, like dates of receipt, movement, transfers and production, functions could also include changes in lot number and the ingredients used, expiry dates, potential allergens and nutritional information, as well as a complaint management system.
US Department of Agriculture
One benefit of cloud computing is its ability to provide critical information in real time. It is also scalable and economically sustainable for users only pay for what they need, therefore making it suitable for businesses of different sizes.
Traceability would be made much easier and less complicated when members along the supply chain each do their part by uploading the relevant information into a shared system. Not only does this prevent problems like double entry of information, it severely increases the visibility of products and eradicates confusion by standardising and integrating the track and trace process along the entire product chain.
Putting information in the cloud allows any party in the supply chain to track the movement of the product, and also empowers them with the knowledge to conduct recalls or send out remote consignments, leading to greater overall efficiency. In addition, the increased visibility accord by a cloud-based system will also encourage companies along the chain to uphold honest practices, for fraudulent activity will be much more identifiable.
Learning From The BestAccording to the Food Safety and Traceability 2011 report by the Aberdeen Group, the best-in-class manufacturers in the food industry have outperformed their counterparts in four areas. This includes having more products produced in compliance, a greater number of complete and on-time shipments, higher overall equipment efficiency, as well as having a much shorter track and trace response time.
To top it off, the best-in-class manufacturers were found to be twice more likely than laggard companies to have visibility and assigned responsibility for adverse events, and are also 40 percent more likely to automate data collection for traceability. This includes the use of radio frequency identification (RFID) tags and barcodes, where readers can automatically scan for information. This suggests that automating data collection helps companies better allocate their human resources for other more important roles.
By assigning specific responsibilities to various personnel, employees are able to react faster during adversity and improve overall performance. This can be upheld with internal audits as a way of benchmarking one’s performance, in addition to mock recalls so that companies can better prepare themselves in case of a real event.
Ultimately, traceability measures may be enhanced and made much more efficient with the use of tools like ERP systems and cloud computing, which also helps to inculcate trust between the various stakeholders. Trust is the glue that holds the industry together, from suppliers to manufacturers and from manufacturers to consumers. To achieve this however, stakeholders along the supply chain must take the first step by being accountable and open for collaboration, as these are the main building blocks of track and trace solutions.
Creating Safe PerceptionsResults from the Food Safety Gauge 2012 by TÜV SÜD have provided a glimpse of how consumers and businesses view food safety, and how it has affected their perception of the industry.
Food products that consumers are most concerned with on food safety
- Raw meat and fish (72 percent)
- Milk/Dairy/Eggs (66 percent)
- Vegetables/Fruits (49 percent)
- Processed Food (44 percent)
- Oils/Fats (31 percent)
- Supplements/Health Foods (31 percent)
Top ten countries perceived to be safest by consumers
- Japan (26 percent)
- Northern Europe (22 percent)
- Canada (17 percent)
- Australia (13 percent)
- New Zealand (10 percent)
- Singapore (10 percent)
- Eastern Europe (10 percent)
- Southern Europe (9 percent)
- Brazil (8 percent)
- Germany (8 percent)
Top ten countries perceived to be safest by businesses
- Northern Europe (29 percent)
- Japan (26 percent)
- Australia (24 percent)
- Canada (19 percent)
- New Zealand (15 percent)
- Germany (12 percent)
- France (9 percent)
- Hong Kong (8 percent)
- Italy (7 percent)
- Singapore (6 percent)
Product Traits Ranked According To Importance
- Food Safety (Hygiene)
- Safety Labels
- Product Origin
- Food Safety (Hygiene)
- Safety Labels
- Product Origin