Is Your Traceability System as Modern as the Rest of Your Life?

Departments - Produce Production

February 4, 2019

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JENNIFER McENTIRE, United Fresh Produce Association, Vice President, Food Safety & Technology

Lately I feel like a broken record talking about traceability. A record that I’ve been playing for over a decade. My “broken record” simile is quite fitting when explaining why traceability challenges continue. How many people entering the workforce have ever played a record? Even if they have, few rely on vinyl records as the sole source of music anymore. And yet, often at some point within the supply chain of a food product, you’ll encounter recordkeeping approaches that document where a product came from and where it shipped to that are from the same generation as vinyl records.

Cassette tapes were an improvement upon records in some ways, especially because individuals could make mix tapes and share them with their friends. But, as many of us will remember, if you copy from tape to tape, the quality will deteriorate. (Have you seen any PDFs that are photocopies or scans of faxes?) Plus, if they were to unspool and the tape got kinked, it could mess up your recording. But at least you could share. You needed to physically meet up, or put the tape in the mail, but you could create a new, unique tape and share it.

MP3 players played a role for a brief period, enabling portability of an immense number of tunes. They were quickly usurped by multi-functional devices that do more than just play music. I have an account “in the cloud” and can pull my music down from virtually anywhere. I can play it on a device that I can also use to call people or take pictures; on my laptop where I am writing this article; or in my kitchen on a device that I typically use to set cooking timers — but that can also tell me a joke.

Pitching a new system as an investment in traceability is a non-starter for some. The same way I don’t buy a new phone based on its capability to play music, recordkeeping systems of the future (which are actually available today) need to address a multitude of business needs so that the ROI is not questioned. And just like a phone, we don’t all need to have the same brand (e.g., the bells and whistles can vary), the same carrier, or even have the same number of digits in our phone numbers. By leveraging standards, we can still talk to each other. And standards for traceability do exist (i.e., GS1).

Today, when FDA conducts a traceback investigation, it is collecting information in a variety of formats and needs to piece it together. Imagine getting an iTunes playlist and being told that the area of interest was track #7: “Greatest traceability info.” Then you collect a few tapes and need to fast forward through each track, trying to find “Greatest traceability info.” And finally, grabbing some 33s, you hunt for “Greatest traceability info,” only to find that it’s actually on a 45 and you need the yellow adapter insert which is on backorder (e.g., vacation) until Wednesday. Finally the adapter arrives, and you find that you actually have the Muzak version and the words are missing. While any individual partner in the supply chain may claim to have “Greatest traceability info” — and they do — the challenge is moving through the supply chain.

Within the fresh produce industry, the Produce Traceability Initiative (PTI) served as an early model for supply-chain-wide traceability. The first milestones should have been hit a decade ago. Today’s technology affords us even better capabilities but builds upon a foundation of good recordkeeping and standards.

Vinyl records are making a comeback. Let’s hope that paper records and clipboards don’t. Or at least that they also exist on the cloud, as most music does today. It’s time to modernize traceability systems so we’re all singing in the same key.