Aquaculture for all

Traceability a Necessary Evil?

Food safety & handling Politics

There has been an increased interest in traceability in the last few years. This has not least been because of food scandals, well covered by the media, and the legislation that followed, writes Sveinn Vkingur rnason Marine Products Processing Consultant. This article was published by the Food and Agriculture Organisation.


The legislation requires that reactive systems be in place to facilitate a recall of products or to prevent them from reaching the consumer. Because of the reactive nature of traceability systems, many companies have considered them an added cost, with little obvious gain for the company.

But traceability methodology can also be used for things other than recall, and in a more proactive way. This can for example be for marketing or production management. In order for this to be possible, the traceability systems need to be connected to or integrated with other systems in the company, like HACCP, Quality Control systems, Production Management systems and others.


Traceability methodology has been around for a long time and is an essential element in many production-related systems. However the focus on the term traceability and on specific traceability systems was increased greatly when the European Union (EU) and the United States of America (USA) put forward regulations (EU regulation 178/2002; Bioterrorism Act) that require all food and feed producing companies to have the ability to trace their products and the ingredients used. As a consequence of this, many companies have had to put in place systems or strategies to be able to trace their products, and in the event of failure, recall them from the market.

The reactive and insurance-like nature of traceability systems has led many to the understanding that these systems are only an added cost in the production – a necessary evil.

Traceability systems are necessary today because of legislation and also because of marketing and company image. If they are evil, in the sense that they only add cost but bring no value to the companies, depends mainly on how the systems are designed and used.

The concept of traceability

There are various definitions of traceability, both in the legal text and in standards text. EU Regulation 178/2002 describes it as

“the ability to trace and follow a food, feed, food-producing animal or substance intended to be, or expected to be, incorporated into a food or feed, through all stages of production, processing and distribution.”

In the ISO definition, the term “ability to trace” is also present.

This is important if we look at what is needed to comply with the legal framework.

The definition of traceability and what is implied in the new regulations is the ability to trace and follow the food. These regulations deal with external traceability, or traceability between parties in the supply chain. They say little or nothing about the traceability systems that you need to have in place, whether they be electronic or paper based. Also there is no direct mention of the size of batches or the reaction time in case of crisis.

So traceability is a very elastic concept, it can be pulled to all sides to fit the situation at hand. This is why traceability can just as well be applied in the developing countries as in the developed countries. The level of traceability that can be achieved may be different, the level of technology may be different and batch sizes may vary, but the systems can comply with the legal requirements.

What is important with regard to the legal requirements is to know where your supplies come from and where your products go.

Increased focus on traceability

The increased demand for traceability that has emerged in the last decade or so is largely due to a number of food crises (BSE, dioxin, Sudan Red 1, etc.) that have occurred and, due to their seriousness, have had much media coverage. This prompted extensive discussions about food safety and food-safety-related matters.

The players in the food supply chain all want traceability but for slightly different reasons: governments have had food safety or consumer safety as the main driving force in putting in place the regulations; producers also have consumer safety as a big issue, but image, brand protection and minimizing the recall volume are also important; while retailers or buyers look at traceability on the producer side as a means of getting a more homogeneous supply. And of course green issues are an increasing driver for traceability. The consumers naturally want safe food, and consumers are beginning to think more about fair trade, ecolabelling and such matters: “Where is this food that I am eating coming from?” “How are the workers treated?” “What are the facilities they are working in?” “Is the stock managed in a sustainable way?” and so forth. These things all matter, and in an increasing manner.

Traceability in marketing

Traceability is already being used for marketing in various ways. We have an example of an advertisement of the Thai Frozen Food association, where they are saying “If you think of shrimp, think of Thailand”. They also mention traceability in this advertisement, so the message is “If you think of Thailand and shrimp, think of traceability”. Traceability there is supposed to promote some sort of feeling of safety and freshness. So there is a connection between safety and freshness and the term traceability. The Australian Meat Association also has an advertisement where they connect safety and traceability, and what they say about meat could easily apply to fish: before our fish hits the plate, it has to look good on paper.

There was an E. coli outbreak involving spinach from the USA, in September 2006. The FDA said that possibly some of it was exported to Iceland. So the Icelandic industry reacted by recalling everything that could have possibly been affected. But there was an Icelandic company that at that time started to run a TV commercial where they said, “Our organic lettuce is traceable to the field”. So this was in direct response to the news about the spinach from the USA and traceability was directly being used for marketing there. But the funny thing about this campaign is, did the US companies not have traceability? Well of course they had because the FDA managed to find out that the contamination came from three counties in California and some producers initiated a voluntary recall based on their traceability systems. So what was happening here? Well the Icelandic company was using the perception of the consumer that traceability means safety. Dr Valdimarsson quoted someone from the food industry in his lecture (this volume) saying that “customer perception is our reality”, and this is maybe what this Icelandic advertisement was based on.

Traceability systems as such do not increase the likelihood of safe products reaching the market; they minimize the damage that unsafe products that have left the companies cause by implementing targeted recall.

Traceability in production management

As has been said before traceability systems are like insurance: they cost and you hope never to have to use them. However, by using traceability information in relation to other product and process related information, you can get returns from the traceability system, i.e. make it less evil.

With fish there are two problems in this regard. One is that fish is perishable by nature, so you really never know how much time you have unless you have very good control over the whole chain. The other problem is that between the medium and long term, it can be quite inhomogeneous as a raw material, so its suitability for certain products varies by time of year, by fishing ground, etc. This means that the profitability of production can vary in accordance with fishing ground and time of year, even with very stable market conditions. This is of course what makes the fish business so difficult, but through innovative use of the systems in the company, you can counteract this to some degree.

In each processing plant or in the supply chain as a whole there are numerous systems. We have traceability systems in many companies and all sorts of qualityrelated systems that are collecting data. We also have management systems and sales systems, and they are all collecting what I would like to call similar data. They are all in place for the same reason. To produce safe food at the lowest possible cost. The traceability system can not function properly if the other systems are not in place. A traceability system that stands alone and has no basis in other systems will be of little benefit because you have no way of limiting the recall volume if you do not have any monitoring information behind the system telling you where the fault in the product originated. This is why we can expect these systems to merge to some degree in the near future, or at least exchange information in a more systematic manner.

Still there is a fundamental difference in the data coming from these systems. Some of the systems are process oriented: they are looking at a specific stage in the process and they are proactive. They are proactive in the way that they are monitoring a certain place in the process and trying to prevent something from happening there. They may be checking the temperature and if it goes out of bounds, corrective action has to be taken. The traceability system, in contrast, is product oriented. Traceability is looking at material flow, it is looking at batches and it is reactive. The best thing to happen to you is to never have to use your traceability system. So it is reactive, it only kicks in if the other systems fail in some way. So traceability is like car insurance. You have to have it. Whereas the other systems are more like sensible driving, and if you drive sensibly you are acting in a proactive manner. But even if you are sensible and drive carefully, you still have to buy car insurance because the way you drive can affect others. It is the same with the traceability system: you need to have a traceability system in place because they way you produce your products can affect others in a negative way. So this is relevant when it comes to combining the data from these systems for use in a production management system, and we want to combine and use them all for the same goal.

So what is the product that the traceability system is following? A product is the sum of its attributes, attributes being size, salt percentage, species (is it cod or is it hake), microbial or chemical levels that are allowed, and so forth. And each product has a unique set of attributes, and each attribute has a maximum and a minimum, and these are put in place either by legal requirements or requirements from trade agreements. The proactive systems are monitoring the attributes. They are monitoring the processes that are handling the products, and they take corrective action when attributes go out of bounds, because when a product is out of bounds or the attributes are out of bounds and the product reaches the market and is discovered, the traceability system reacts by recalling the affected products. To limit the recall volume you need to have as much information about the affected lot as possible. That’s why you need to get information from all the systems that you have in place. But to do that you need to have a way to know which data is associated with which product or batch. One way of doing this is by mapping all the data to a common timeline, a traceability timeline. Then, if you know when a product was in a certain place in the system, you can gather all other data from that time and place and in this way build a snapshot of what was happening in each production phase when the product in question went through there.

Some companies in the fishing industry are looking into this already and it has also been looked into by the meat industry. So everything is mapped to a common timeline and to the traceability system or any other system.

What is important here is that events in the processing environment, product attributes and the situation in the product environment be recorded in such a manner that each bit of information can be connected to a time and a place, and thus to a certain product batch.

An end product usually has one batch number. In reality a product is part of numerous batches. Salted cod would be part of at least the following batches;

  • the raw material batch;
  • the salt batch; and
  • the packaging material batch.

Usually, in Europe at least, most companies have good traceability for the main raw material, the fish, but when it comes to the ingredients and the packaging or the processing lines and so on, the traceability is less. So the level of traceability is different for the different batches. For the main raw material it is good, but for the other batches it is often less good. The situation is similar in developing countries.

Product recall depends on where the problem originates and, in the case of packaging, it would be a pretty big recall. If you have no control over packaging batches, it would be even bigger.

Using a timeline approach can help in this situation.

One added benefit of having all the data in one system is that we can start exploring relationships between various product attributes and/or process attributes. One could, for example, connect the yield and the profit margin to fishing ground or time of year. Many other possibilities open up when such relationships are looked into. There is ongoing research in this area in Iceland, led by the former Icelandic Fisheries Laboratories, now Matis, and it is very promising.

So the problem today, regarding combining data from different systems, is that there is not enough standardization regarding data handling and storage for the various systems. Some companies have been working on this issue so that the systems can better work together. The same methodology, as has been covered here for the production management within the company, can apply to the supply chain as a whole. You can use the same way of thinking and then maybe you can connect retail shelf life, to transport mode or transport route.

So I believe by gathering all the information into one system, and using the historical data, you can make the traceability systems pay back instead of just costing.

So, just to summarize, if you use traceability just to fulfil the legal requirements, it is a reactive, insurance-like system. But when you start using it for marketing, because of the perception of traceability being trust or safety, then you can use if for differentiation, for segmenting, by fitting the raw material to the product in each market segment. You can use it for production management, such as suitability of raw materials to certain products based on historical data. This is proactive use of traceability systems.

Using traceability systems just to fulfil legal requirements will cost you, and then the answer to whether or not it is evil is probably yes. But when you start using traceability systems in a different way and start making them work for you, even when nothing is going wrong, then the bottom line will not suffer—the traceability systems are no longer evil.

April 2009

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