For anyone in the food industry, safety is of the utmost importance. Upholding safety and public health often comes down to food traceability, but what exactly is that?
This guide will uncover the ins and outs of product traceability, why it’s so essential for the industry, how it benefits both consumers and food production businesses, and how current regulations impact food traceability. Understanding food traceability will help any food supplier keep their product safe for the masses and respond quickly should any contamination occur.
Food Traceability and Its Importance
What is food traceability? According to the Food and Drug Administration, it’s the tracking of all food products and ingredients throughout the entire manufacturing and distribution process. Suppliers must document the movement of their products to act quickly and address any concerns over contamination.
Food traceability aids in public safety by keeping contaminated products out of consumers’ hands. Four distinct phases encompass the process:
For businesses in the industry, food traceability also protects them from loss and litigation. A person who experiences a health crisis after consuming contaminated food could file a personal injury suit against the manufacturer, potentially causing them to pay expensive damages.
Further financial loss occurs when a supplier needs to issue a product recall. According to ESHA Research, a single product recall can cost manufacturers up to $10 million, while certain high-profile recalls can cost even more. These massive costs go toward the company’s legal fees, supply chain costs, lost revenue, investigations, potential FDA non-compliance fees, and crisis management costs.
Perhaps the biggest loss for suppliers, however, is the consumer trust and loyalty that they lose after a recall. In order to keep consumers safe and maintain a favorable brand image, food traceability is key to preventing the mass consumption of dangerous food items.
Recent Food Recalls
Manufacturers never want to endure a product recall because it impacts customer loyalty and perception of the brand, contributes to food waste, and, in some instances, puts the business at the center of a lawsuit. Nevertheless, plenty of food suppliers recall their products each year because of a harmful contaminant or a failure to comply with standards. Each of these contamination or non-compliance issues can harm the public if the manufacturer fails to act.
One recent BelVita recall in July of 2023 focused on a string of complaints by consumers experiencing allergic reactions. The product in question, BelVita breakfast sandwiches, featured cross-contamination upon inspection of the manufacturing facility. The company that produces the breakfast sandwiches, Mondelez Global LLC, found traces of a peanut protein residue on the manufacturing line despite the product’s label listing no peanut ingredients.
While product recalls due to potential allergic reactions protect a select group of consumers, other recalls are due to foreign objects that endanger all consumers. For example, a recall of Martinelli’s apple juice containers was due to the possibility that the product contained glass chips. A notable recall from G.O. Corporation concerned 11,000 pounds of romaine lettuce that may contain traces of deer feces, which can transmit diseases like E.coli.
These and other recalls would not be possible if the FDA did not regulate food traceability. A manufacturer needs to be able to track their products, ingredients, and any possible dangers involved in the production and distribution lines. As long as they trace all product information accordingly, they can announce and monitor an effective recall and protect consumers from harmful contaminants.
Who Is Required to Trace Food?
The FDA requires several parties to be responsible for food traceability. According to the FDA’s Food Safety Modernization Act, compliance with the Food Traceability Final Rule goes into effect in 2026 and requires record-keeping from those who manufacture, process, pack, and hold food products.
In other words, this applies to:
- Farmers and those who harvest raw materials
- The factory workers who receive and package the food
- Distributors who ship the food
- Retailers who store and sell the food
These parties all play a role in getting food from the earth to your table and need to track the product accordingly.
Benefits of Food Traceability for Consumers and Businesses
Food traceability benefits both manufacturers and their customers in several ways. First and foremost, consumers can eat or drink products with peace of mind that they are safe and free of contaminants. The phases of food traceability tackle this head-on by making sure manufacturers prepare for anything, act quickly to recover spoiled products, and prevent the issue from occurring again.
The process is equally beneficial to food suppliers because they can face significant financial loss and deter their customer base if a contaminant outbreak leads to a product recall. Companies can strengthen their brand image and maintain their customer base by implementing food traceability measures that ultimately minimize harm to the general public.
Challenges of Implementing Food Traceability
Despite its importance, food traceability can be quite difficult to implement. According to the Global Food Traceability Center, manufacturers face several common issues when trying to track all of their products and ingredients. One major factor is that traceability varies between certain products and industries; therefore, those involved in agriculture, food processing, distribution, and retail must be diligent in their efforts.
A lack of accurate record-keeping can contribute to faulty product tracking and become detrimental to consumers and manufacturers. Whether records suffer due to human error or ineffective computer systems, suppliers must determine the best solution for their system. This may include upgrading their electronic data management systems.
Depending on the source of each food product, suppliers need to meet several different regulations from global authorities. It can be difficult for manufacturers to satisfy the growing demands from different regulators pertaining to various allergens, pesticides, and other contaminants. If there is an issue with the product, manufacturers suffer from delayed response times since global food sources reside in varying time zones.
Finally, one of the most challenging parts of food traceability falls on consumers. Suppliers need to keep up with constantly evolving consumer preferences, and modern technology makes them crave product information at their fingertips. As consumers become more aware of what they put in their bodies, product recalls have a greater impact on their perception of a brand and influence their buying decisions.
All of these challenges can hinder a supplier’s food traceability efforts. However, identifying the issues is the first step toward finding the right solutions.
Food Traceability Examples
Let’s dive into the process of food traceability, from beginning to end, by using farm-grown cucumbers as an example. The farm where the cucumbers grow does not need to follow any traceability rules; however, the party that harvests the product does. In this case, the harvester needs to provide information to the party that will pack the cucumbers as the next part of the supply chain.
The cucumbers may go to an initial packer before being sent to a processor, which will re-pack them and prepare them for distribution. All of these parties — the initial packer, the processor, and the distributor — must comply with FDA regulations and provide traceability data. The final step in the supply chain is for the cucumbers to end up at a grocery retailer, which will receive all prior data.
Technologies and Systems Used for Food Traceability
Product traceability is becoming easier as technology advances. Food manufacturers have growing access to different systems that can streamline ingredient and product tracking with little room for error. The most common solutions to track food products are their barcodes, radio frequency identification devices, and warehouse management systems.
- Product barcodes first appeared in the 1970s and continue to be instrumental for food tracking today since they feature a Universal Product Code (UPC) that contains information the supplier verifies at several stages in the production process.
- Radiofrequency identification devices automatically scan products anytime they enter or leave a facility.
- Warehouse management systems compile data from barcodes or radio frequency identification devices for easy monitoring and prove especially helpful during a product recall.
While these systems remain important for food traceability, other new technologies are making the process even simpler. Blockchain technology utilizes QR codes on food labels, which gives consumers the power to access information about the product and its processors. This provides more transparency for consumers and helps prevent food fraud.
Food-scanning technologies, including food inspection systems, analyze products and identify potential contaminants within them. Finally, manufacturers use a system known as the Internet of Things (IoT), which provides supply chain data in real-time and uses artificial intelligence to better identify and track food products. While some of this advanced technology is costly for manufacturers, it proves effective in tracing food products for optimum safety.
Regulations and Standards for Food Traceability
The FDA establishes various criteria and regulations regarding food traceability. This includes the Food Traceability List and several requirements for every product’s labeling. All FDA standards exist with the intention of holding manufacturers accountable for contamination and ultimately protecting consumers from harm and food-borne illnesses.
Let’s explore the specifics behind each of these regulations and what suppliers need to do in order to maintain compliance.
FDA 204 Rule
Section 204 of the FDA Food Modernization Act details the Food Traceability List. This maps out all of the foods that require additional traceability records, including cheeses, shell eggs, nut butters, fresh produce, and seafood. These foods have a higher chance of causing illness and pathogen growth, which makes them more susceptible to recalls.
The rule aims to minimize the dangers of contamination and maintain consumer health. It calls for the appropriate parties to keep excellent records of the supply chain so that if a problem arises, they can quickly pull the contaminated food from the shelves.
This rule applies to any product that features an ingredient on the Food Traceability List. For example, a package of fresh spinach and chocolate peanut butter cups both require the same tracking since they feature ingredients from the FDA’s Food Traceability List.
What Is Required by the FDA to Be on Food Labels
The FDA dictates that manufacturers list certain criteria on every processed food label, while nutritional labeling on raw produce and fish is voluntary. This involves the net quantity of the package’s product, either in weight, fluid measurement, or the total number of items in a container.
A food nutrition label offers vital information about a product’s contents and dietary ingredients. These labels must include the serving size in a common household unit of measurement, the total servings per container, and the following nutrients, both in a measured amount and their percentage of the suggested daily value:
- Total fat, saturated fat, and trans fat
- Total carbohydrates
- Dietary fiber
- Total sugars and added sugars
- Vitamin D
Product labels need to include the ingredient list and declare if any common food allergens are present in the product. This guarantees transparency for vulnerable consumers and keeps them safe from potentially life-threatening allergic reactions. Every manufacturer needs to clearly print their name and address on the food label so retailers or consumers can communicate any problems with the product, which is part of the recall process.
The FDA also places restrictions on certain claims that a manufacturer can make on their packaging in order to avoid deceiving consumers. For example, a supplier can’t label their product as “low calorie” unless it features a serving size greater than 30 grams and each serving contains less than 40 calories. Restrictions set the standard for claims regarding a product’s sugar, fat, and fiber content, among others.
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