The What, Why and How of it
Food traceability stands at the cusp of many a contemporary buzz word. It also somehow seems to figure in the lexicon of generally opposing forces: ethics and business, profits and environmental sustainability, disruptive technology and sustaining innovation. Let us glance through the what, why, and how of it, prior to arriving at the way it is making its presence felt across the globe, and the opportunity that it presents in the relatively nascent market that is India.
Term ‘Traceability’ holds different definition in international standards, dictionaries, legislation, and scientific community. Following are few examples of the same:
ISO 8402 – “The ability to trace the history, application or location of an entity by means of recorded identifications”; ISO 9000 – “The ability to trace the history, application or location of that which is under consideration”;
Dictionary.com and The Free Dictionary – “the ability to trace”; Cambridge Dictionaries Online – “the ability to discover information about where and how a product was made”;
The EU GFL (General Food Law) (Regulation 178/2002) – “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”;
Thus, in general, Food Traceability can be defined as the ability of tracking food and related products through various stages of production, processing and distribution, including that of importation and retail. Food traceability inherently suggests that each of the food’s movements is able to be traced a step backward or forward, as the case may be, at any point in the supply chain.
The why has plenty of anchors it can latch on to, the most obvious being that it provides visibility to quality, freshness, and authenticity. Besides, traceability allows food products and their ingredients to be tracked and verified, helping establish foundations for robust compliance and stringent safety requirements. At the same instant, it also helps in augmenting consumer belief, retain trust, loyalty and recall. Another logical pivot to the why is the hyper globalised food supply market where traceability goes a long way in assuaging the fears that arise with such complex market systems. The more one can vouch for the antecedents of the product, the greater sway it can have, as also bring in multiple ingredients to the table. Quite importantly, traceability provides scope for corrective actions to be implemented quickly and effectively when something goes wrong. An effective traceability system can also help isolate and prevent contaminated products from proliferating widely in the market, thereby minimising disruption to trade and at the same time avoiding any potential public health risk. Such improved data governance by way of traceability can also help companies constantly improve food safety.
Traceability needs to extend its efficacy to identify the source of all food inputs, including raw materials, additives and packaging. The how of it comprises technology of various genres. These include blockchain, software applications which are currently being developed with the help of java, drupal ,etc. Their capabilities would be able to identify the food source, quality, transit temperature, and freshness of the produce, as well as can be further used to ensure that the data is accurate so as to provide confidence to both consumers and retailers.
In much of the modern West, traceability is now indelibly incorporated in their food supply management systems, with ever growing customer consumption patterns, burgeoning demand, and a legal framework which makes it mandatory for all food and feed business to incorporate it within their businesses. The European Union also has special traceability rules for genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which ensure that the GM content of a product can be traced and require accurate labelling so that consumers can make an informed choice. The EU also has made it compulsory for producers to tag animals with details of their origin, and when animals are taken for slaughter, stamp them with the traceability code of the abattoir. Stakeholders such as Producers and Food companies that welcome more stringent environmental and social standards, organic-certification requirements, and traceability standards would be able to create niche brand value for themselves particularly in the face of evolving regulation and would continue to grow to take advantage of food traceability trend. For example, in 2010 Unilever announced plans to source 100 percent of its agricultural raw materials sustainably by 2020, and, as of the end of 2014, had reached 55 percent. Traceability in West, is a well evolved system, with clarity of roles and responsibilities with respect to technology there by making already entrenched systems qualitatively better.
The India Connection
In India, the farm to fork industry is yet to takeoff in right earnestness, more so when it comes to incorporating traceability in the root of things. India is also largely infamous for recurrent habits of adulteration, chemical-intensive produce rampant with pesticides and possible carcinogens, with little accountability. Rampant use of preservatives, and malpractices like antibiotics in animal food products also further exacerbate the equation. The systems here still have to rely on local produce to guarantee authenticity. Globally, India is the second largest producer of fruit and vegetables. Fruit production in India has increased nearly 90 percent in the last decade, but we are traditionally wary of ‘unseasonal’ varieties of food, or those that arrive from far shores. With all its shortcomings in the food production systems, India also happens to be one of the most aspirational countries in the contemporary world, with the human potential to fulfill its flight. Food being responsible for a sizeable number of its employment, traceability may be the perfect antidote to a lot of its food-related systemic issues. The Indian food industry is well aware of the necessity for a proper traceability regime, what is lagging is the mass awareness with respect to food traceability. A food traceability system is not only an important tool to manage food quality and safety risks, but also to promote the development of effective and efficient supply chain management in India. Demand also is rising for healthier functional foods, that are certified and traceable, those that offer benefits beyond basic nutrition, such as lowering cholesterol, regulating blood sugar, managing arthritis etc. This is the right time for us to up the ante, and inculcate traceability in our food mechanisms.
What also needs remembering is that the human world is going through a pandemic the parallel of which it has not witnessed in living memory. Within such uncertain times, a simultaneous fear arises of the unknown. This can easily spill on to food supplies where trust is of solitary importance, and food-borne illnesses would be of particular concern to consumers. India has pledged a doubling of the farm economy, as well as has spelt plainly that it is aiming for the top 5 global economies. Within that context, it becomes all the more incumbent on us to let go of our constant lag in incorporating viable mechanisms like traceability. India is willing to pay more for food that knows its journey from the root to the plate, and that should be a welcome signal for businesses to put their best foot forward.