On the 13th of March in 2018, the first illness in what would become a national outbreak of E. coli linked to romaine lettuce was reported. The outbreak went on for four months before ending in June and 210 people in 36 states were affected. Even though the outbreak was traced back to farms in the Yuma area in late April, no recall was ever issued. Instead, people were warned to avoid romaine lettuce and the outbreak only ended when all possibly contaminated lettuce was well past its shelf life and had been discarded. The costs to producers, retailers, and restaurants were significant and lasting. Sales of all lettuce declined during and after the outbreak as consumers decided to play it safe.
Improved food traceability would have allowed better tracking of the contaminated lettuce, and, in turn, would have made it possible to decisively inform consumers whether or not their lettuce was safe. This would have helped restore confidence and would have reduced the market effects that depressed prices on other types of lettuce. Unfortunately, very few food supply chains are equipped with that level of food traceability. Although the technology does exist, it has yet to be implemented in a way that would take advantage of its possibilities. As a result, food producers and the entire food supply chain are missing out on the advantages of traceability.
The Advantages of Food Traceability
The obvious advantage of greater food traceability is, of course, increased public safety. However, the benefits of tracing food through the supply chain go well beyond an improved ability to react to foodborne illness outbreaks. Food traceability also allows for a proactive approach to preventing illness in the first place. Often, food producers buy their ingredients from their vendors without knowing where in the vendor’s network and how the food was produced. Farm-to-fork food traceability would allow food producers to quickly detect and remedy the following:
- Fraud: Traceability would help producers ensure that growers are providing ingredients that meet the agreed-upon standards. For instance, organic produce is a big business. Organic food producers that don’t manage their own farms must trust that their vendors abide by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s rules for growing and labeling organic food. A food traceability program gives producers and retailers more assurance that they’re getting what they pay for.
- Allergen Contamination: Foods and food products that are prepared or transported alongside common allergens like tree nuts or peanuts must be labeled that they pose the risk of an allergic reaction. Without provisions for food traceability, vendors changing processes can expose foods to allergens without the knowledge of the producer buying the ingredients.
- Bacterial Contamination: Not only does tracking food through the supply chain offer a better way to conduct targeted recalls, but it also provides a means for preventing those recalls in the first place. Food testing by the manufacturer can detect bacterial contamination before it reaches the consumer, and transparent food tracing makes it possible to quickly track down the source of the contamination and stop production until it is resolved.
- Internal Lapses: Food producers must trust that their employees are following proper procedures for the preparation and handling of food. With food traceability at the batch level, any detected lapses that might lead to spoilage or contamination can be traced back to their source.
With food tracing from farm to fork, a food producer can verify that their vendors and employees are following proper procedures.
All of the above are enabled by the improved data collection and correlation that food traceability brings to logistics. With food tracing from farm to fork, a food producer can verify that their vendors and employees are following proper procedures. Yet food traceability isn’t widely employed even though the technology is commonplace. One reason is the time it takes to collect the data.
The Technology Behind Food Traceability
Currently, the best method to track and trace food uses the same technology as barcode scanning at the grocery store checkout. A Global Standard 1 (GS1) Global Trade Item Number (GTIN) is linked to a scannable barcode placed on each individual product. This method is used at retailers and distribution centers to keep track of Stock Keeping Units (SKUs) as products move into and out of inventory. However, food traceability through barcode scanning typically begins and ends at a grocery store’s distribution center, and the reason largely has to do with the time it takes to manually scan each item.
RFID technology means that with the right equipment, a whole truckload of product can be scanned at once, capturing all the relevant data almost instantaneously.
If you’ve ever visited a superstore in the middle of the night, then you’ve seen store employees scanning items as they pull them off the pallet. This is a time-consuming process which isn’t easily scaled up. Instead, inventory and tracking at production centers are focused on batches and on meeting quantities per batch. This is part of the reason the romaine lettuce outbreak was so hard to track. While producers of bagged lettuce could say they received lettuce from farms in the Yuma area and that it was processed into their bagged lettuce, they couldn’t say which of the bags that went out contained lettuce from which source. However, there is another, less time-consuming method of tracking food using the same GS1 standards.
A Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) chip is essentially a radio receiver/transmitter without an onboard power supply. It remains passive until it receives a radio signal that allows it to transmit. RFID chips that transmit a GS1 identifier matching their barcode can be read and logged remotely instead of being manually scanned. RFID technology means that with the right equipment, a whole truckload of product can be scanned at once, capturing all the relevant data almost instantaneously. This method is much quicker and more scalable than manually scanning barcodes and can allow for near real-time tracking of product loads across the whole food supply chain. If implemented at every part of the food or grocery supply chain, this tracking method makes it possible to issue targeted recalls, trace contamination to its source, and spot control lapses. While it isn’t economical to put RFID chips on every individual packaged product, placing them on shipping platforms instead allows food traceability at the batch level and for a reasonable cost.
Choosing a Pallet for Food Traceability
In spite of their advantages, RFID-equipped shipping pallets aren’t easy to come by. Standard wood pallets, whether block or stringer pallets, have a relatively short lifespan and must be frequently repaired, making them incompatible with RFID technology. Durable plastic pallets are one solution; their unitized construction means that the chip can be integrated into the pallet.
The main drawback to plastic pallets is their cost and the cost of retrieval and reuse. For this reason, many companies turn to a pallet pooling program, which is able to provide durable RFID-equipped plastic pallets for a price comparable to that of stringer pallets. With the proper RFID readers in place, both food producers and their vendors can use an RFID-equipped pallet pool to enjoy the advantages of farm-to-fork food traceability.
The iGPS pallet pool offers a durable, RFID-enabled plastic pallet that makes data capture easy. To transform your food supply chain with a traceable pallet, give our team a call at 1-800-884-0225, email a specialist at [email protected], or visit our contact page.