10 October 2010 - Traceability is Coming

How well I remember a couple of years ago, the letters and e-mails I received from livestock producers across the country who were angered when I called for a National Animal Identification Program. Those were angry and downright nasty e-mails. But, it is time to say once again, that traceability in the food industry is coming, whether you like it or not.

Processors, retailers and consumers are going to demand traceability because of the increased urban media coverage of food recalls; the most recent, of course, being the salmonella egg recall that sickened 1,600 people and led to the recall of 550,000,000 Iowa eggs. Until the source was found, the entire egg industry was condemned by consumers, many of whom stopped eating eggs because of their concern over safety.

The beginning of the demand for traceability goes back to 2006. Remember the e-coli contamination of a California 50-acre spinach field that led to five deaths and 200 illnesses in 26 states? That spinach was canned under the Dole label and that is when Dole contracted InSync Software to set up a computer electronic tracking system similar to FedEx that now tracks every crate of produce from the farm field to the supermarket.

IBM is now working with a group of leading California growers associations at their request; Intelleflex is working with food and vegetable producers in Hawaii; YottaMark is working with 2,000 yam and berry producers and Infratab is working with California grape growers setting up computer programs that can trace every product from the field all the way to the dinner table. These tracing programs ultimately will benefit agricultural producers of every commodity, including livestock producers, because if the source of contamination can be located and isolated immediately, then you don’t condemn the entire industry.

Traceability is already here in some agricultural commodities and will eventually cover all food producers. All it will take is for a Wal-Mart or Costco to announce they will no longer buy meat or other products that cannot be traced back to the farm and that will push everybody to scramble to meet their demands. My hope is that processors will offer financial incentives to encourage producers to adopt tracing programs without placing the entire burden of cost on the producer.

Other countries are far ahead of us in this technology and we should learn from their experience in establishing the programs with their producers and satisfying the demands of processors and consumers. Let’s get ahead of the curve because, like it or not, the demand for traceability in the food industry is here.

My thoughts on Samuelson Sez.