Food Traceability: Full Disclosure

Food traceability has steadily become an essential requirement in the increasingly complex, industrialized, and global food system. Being able to ascertain the origin of products and their attributes from the farm through food processing, to retail and food service, and into the home can be a critical tool for manufacturers, consumers, and everyone else along the supply chain.

By Tudor Vintiloiu, Catalina Mihu

Effective and rapid traceability is key to minimizing occurrences of foodborne illnesses, issues regarding authenticity, food-fraud, but it can also have a great impact on consumers’ purchasing decision. For example, consumers more and more want to know where their products are coming from. The decision is often made on the basis of the origin of a product.

Consumer demands

In a recent interview for European Baker & Biscuit magazine, Bühler’s CTO, Ian Roberts explained the growing demand for traceability:

“Think for example of the issues around authenticity and food fraud. The controversy around horse meat and beef would have been entirely avoided if you had transparency on the value chain. If you had a little QR code on the pack,  and you picked up your phone you could read that this product came from this farmer, who is certified, who uses these pesticides, which are acceptable, with these fertilizers, harvested on this date, in these weather conditions, processed, shipped to here. You could have certificates that say that it was sorted smartly,  processed like this, authenticated here. And then you could trust it. These solutions work both for the end-user as well as for intermediate steps along the chain. But in the end whom do you have to convince? The consumer pays the money. More information helps you.”

Traceability can play a significant role in enabling food safety, product quality, and allergen management.

“Consumers are looking for the food industry to demonstrate the safety and sustainability of their food. Tracing products through the supply chain improves food safety, diminishes risk, and averts devastating health consequences and economic loss to the food system”, explains Bryan Hitchcock, IFT’s Senior Director of Food Chain and Executive Director of the Global Food Traceability Center.


Implementing a traceability system within a supply chain requires all parties involved to link the physical flow of products with the flow of information about them. “It may sound simple, but the critical first step is defining clear and specific objectives. Traceability systems can cover a wide range of complexity depending on a specific organization’s needs. Specifically, in the case of bakeries, defining traceability needs around the grain supply would be a critical topic”, adds Hitchcock.

Capturing, storing, and sharing information up and down the distribution channel (external traceability) and within a company (internal traceability) in a timely and accurate manner and with interoperable and scalable concepts is the desired goal for global traceability throughout the food system.

“The target is to introduce tailor-made steps. In my opinion, the first step would be to implement an Enterprise-Resource-Planning (ERP) Software system. Bakeries can find solutions for their own processes with their IT partners who know their needs”, says Simone Schiller, managing director, DLG (The German Agricultural Society).

Farm to fork traceability requires that the processes of internal and external traceability be effectively conducted. Each supply chain partner should be able to identify the direct source and direct recipient of traceable items as they pertain to their process.

“Once key priorities and goals are identified, the next step is to identify critical tracking events (CTE’s) and key data elements (KDEs).  These represent the desired data to be collected and when it is collected. Next would be setting up the tools to transmit some or all of this data up and down the supply chain.  We refer to this as interoperability which is a critical element to a smart traceability system”, Hitchcock explains.

Baking industry

Bakery products are typically a combination of agricultural components – like flour, sugar, eggs, etc. – and non-agricultural components such as emulsifiers, leavening agents, salt, improvers, etc.

While traceability for the non-agricultural components is pretty straightforward and quite manageable, when it comes to the agricultural components, things are a lot more complicated. Ideally, all components should be able to be traced back to the field, orchard, flock, or herd. But that is rarely the case since most of these ingredients are first gathered in collecting locations, where they are comingled in a container, silo, or shipping vessel. So it becomes quite impossible to maintain rigorous upstream traceability when dealing with bulk materials.

There are, of course, exceptions for certain types of ingredients, like Olam Cocoa’s Global Head of Sustainability, Simon Brayn-Smith points out: “As cocoa often travels between various buying agents, the journey can be convoluted, and traceability can be difficult to achieve. […] By using smart solutions, such as AtSource, our digital dashboard that collects on the ground metrics about the social and environmental impact of products, manufacturers can be sure that their cocoa products have been responsibly sourced. Another tool developed by Olam Cocoa is Olam Traceability, which can track cocoa beans from the farm to the factory through a barcode applied to every bag of cocoa beans. This allows us to trace cocoa along every step of the supply chain and monitor for any suspicious activity.”

One of the biggest obstacles in implementing digital sustainability tools in many ingredient-producing parts of the world is the limited infrastructure and lack of technology. A challenge for the industry is to develop programs that can be used in facilities where the work is seasonal and where workers may have low digital literacy.

“Many smallholder farmers have never used a computer or smartphone, which is why we have made our tools accessible and offer training on how to use them. Though widespread adoption is challenging, we are making good progress on implementing our tech solutions in the cocoa supply chain”, Simon Brayn-Smith asserts.

You can read more in our print magazine European Baker&Biscuit (Mar/Apr 2019)! 

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