Food Traceability – the role of the consumer

A lot has been discussed about internal (in-plant) traceability, as well as external traceability. Legislators have been urged (by e.g. the Institute of Food Technologists) to work on mandated interoperable traceability systems, that allow us to locate any outbreaks much faster, recall affected product from the shelves much faster thus limiting the impact on any food hazard we will have in the future. Let’s be clear, per definition an outbreak starts with the consumer when they get sick and ends with him, once the hazardous foods are removed from the food supply to consumers. Consumers are and always will be at the center of the issue.

The role of the consumer is of course not only important in traceability systems as such, it is even more important as a food processor at home. Proper handling of foods at home as well as correct preparation methods kitchen hygiene could prevent some of the outbreaks that are occurring. These are at least the favorite ‘explanations’ in the industry if somebody is poisoned via a pathogen bug who could have been killed over the course of meal preparation. This is not the topic in postin, I leave it up to others where we draw the line on what foods to cook while I continue to eat my steak tartar.

An outbreak happens when 2 or more people independent from each other get sick by the same strain of microbiological bug. To investigate the root cause of such an outbreak, doctors and FDA officials ask affected people about what they ate. Keep in mind that an O157:H7 infection has an incubation period of 3-9 days. This means that anything that you ate in this time frame could have infected you.

Be honest: If you would be asked right now to create a detailed record of your food consumption over the past 9 days, what, where, when: How complete would you be able to put this together? Did you grab something on an airport? What store? What did you eat?

We consume food in basically two places, at home and in food service establishments.

Food service establishments do not track what has been sold to whom at all. Payment cards are not allowed to be used to track purchases, consumers do not even have the option to sign a waiver, allowing restaurants to track via their payment methods (debit and credit cards) what food they and where. This is especially sad, since credit card and debit card payment systems are already so interoperable, that such a move would be really simple. Providers of these cards could have options, as I can opt being an ‘organ donor’ on my driver’s license, why can’t I be an information donor for outbreak analysis? Don’t both approaches help save lives?

Food that we consume at home is coming largely from some sort of grocery store. Some may be bought on fruit and vegetable stands on the road, some may be directly from the farm. Most retail establishments do have some form of membership or customer loyalty card program in place. They only work though, if there are real financial benefits involved. While most retailers claim that customer profiles on their customer cards and inaccurate, club stores take a lead and maintain systems with a much higher degree of accuracy. Why? They create value with large valuable coupon books, rebate checks, magazines and the like that consumers want to receive. Most other customer loyalty card programs limit themselves to junk email and in-store ‘club discounts’ to serve their own need for data helping them to analyze customer buying patterns and decision processes. In other words, these programs are largely self serving and the consumer benefits are just a way to coax them into participation.

Retailers are not only facing the fact that they need to create a different value and make their loyalty cards work, or work with food service establishments to make credit cards work for food safety tracking. As a very first step it would allow investigators to find reasonably quickly the common food and the common ingredients sick people consumed in the periods in question. Right now, retail capabilities are very limited, since almost all product sold at retail registers is just being scanned and identified using the SKU, the GTIN. There are no lot numbers, harvest dates, kill dates. There are no farms attached to the produce GTIN that is sticking on the individual apple. The box shipping to the retail store is probably the last piece of information that contains lot numbers that are machine readable.

It is not the case, that these products do not contain any traceability data on their package, far from it. They are just not machine readable. There are imprints of lot codes on the lids of cans, there are inkjet markings on your box of cereal. But since these are not machine readable data, retailers cannot collect this information and in the result notify affected consumers. Only the consumer can, after looking up the details on a recall on the web comparing sometimes very complicated set of numbers.
I think there is lot of room for innovation. Packaging companies can develop systems that will enable dynamic markings at high line speeds, so that my Special K cereal can contain a bar-code with a lot number. It can be placed on the same space the current bar-code occupies, since GS1-databars allow us to put more dense information on the same space.

There is a lot that can be done, but it all starts and ends with the consumer, our ability to track what products they purchased and consumed if we want to be able to determine the source of the outbreaks faster. Of course an even better solution would be to improve the safety of our food supply to the degree that outbreaks would never happen. I guess that would be the ideal scenario, but probably just a dream that I share as consumer with consumers. Until then, we need to have a discussion to see how we get consumer data into the food safety system, because without this missing piece we will continue to struggle containing outbreaks fast and efficient.

Please, Senate, House, PTI and everybody else involved in the topic, please go back to the drawing board and check how the standards and legislations you have crafted will help containing and outbreak. Apply fixes where needed, please!

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