Paths to Food Traceability: Knots in the Food Web

Photo Credit: Orange Silicon Valley/Jameson Buffmire

By Micki Seibel and Sarah Williams

Orange Silicon Valley, and Food System 6 teamed up to research and publish a insights about the challenges of food traceability. While transparency is a goal that stakeholders throughout the food system share, the obstacles for consumers, supply chains, brands, and entrepreneurs can be entrenched and nuanced. Below is the second part of our assessment establishing where these obstacles exist for a complex and global food web.

The Food Web Behind the Products

Consumers want more transparency within the global food system, and that demand has already had an impact on the companies that produce and package food products. In the first part of our report, “Consumer Views of Truth,” we looked at that demand, along with the confusion in the marketplace around language, true meaning, and implications of claims related to sourcing, production practices, and nutrient content. In order to provide real transparency to consumers, companies need to provide full traceability that is founded upon verifiable facts on the ground and standards that inform the vocabulary.

One can imagine an ideal stream of tech-enabled checkpoints where traceability standards and definitions shape a fully digitized food system. In order to realize that kind of track-and-trace ecosystem on a large scale, however, there needs to be agreement, alignment, and interoperability across numerous points in the global food web.

Currently, a universally integrated and referenced digital dataset does not exist. That’s chiefly due to the incredible — and underappreciated — complexity of our global food system. This second installment from our “Paths to Food Traceability” series will shine a light on three areas of the food web: sea-based activity, land-based activity, and the commodities marketplace, where many problems are compounded.

It Starts at the Source

Long before food products arrive in grocery stores, various ingredients begin their lives across the globe. From peanut farms and indoor growing facilities to cattle ranches and oceans, there is a point of harvest where food begins its trip through the supply chain to the point of consumption.

In the cases of fish caught at sea and produce harvested largely by hand, neither sea and nor fields are suited for delicate hardware; a simple scanner must all at once be able to withstand extreme heat, extreme cold, dust, mud, rain, saltwater, and other factors. Moreover, where ruggedized traceability technology is deployed to withstand these conditions, it slows the harvesting process, which drives up costs that the market isn’t always willing to bear. Even if the costs can be covered, the technology relies on high standards of repetitive precision.

Then, if food can be traced from the source, it must still contend with the challenges of tracking during transportation, warehousing, and delivery. One logistics company that we spoke with said that data collection while food is in transit can be spotty. If, for example, a driver forgets to enable a device, download an app, perform a scan, or log in to a system, important data is missing or otherwise unretrievable.

In these cases, even when technology exists and works in the field or in transport, success still ultimately relies on human involvement and willingness. And this highlights the first barrier to providing complete track and trace. It’s a stumbling block that is present at every stage of the supply chain — on farms and boats where harvesting, slaughtering, and fishing take place: human workers.

Where Seafood Gets Tricky

Photo Credit: Orange Silicon Valley/Micki Seibel

For seafood, fishing boats and the people handling their equipment are just the beginning for the dilemma of many hands and limited use of traceability tech. Tech skills and process management would be a logical place to start, but the barriers to implementation are more complicated than buying sensors and doing on-the-job training.

“I was in Thailand to help a corporate partner get shrimp farms up to ASC [Aquaculture Stewardship Council] certification,” an aquaculture expert with an internationally respected NGO told us. “They couldn’t trace the marine ingredients in the [shrimp] feed.”

As his work proceeded, the problems got deeper.

“It’s challenging enough to trace the source of your farmed shrimp,” he explained. “In addition, you are also trying to get traceability on the ingredients in the feed. While I was trying to navigate through the feed supply chain The Guardian and AP news broke about slave labor in the Thai fishing industry.”

Normally, his organization is interested in species and sustainability, but right now the main problem it faces in Thailand is a labor issue.

Aquatic environments compound issues that are present on land. Each boat takes in its own catch, but catches from multiple boats are co-mingled at port, multiple ports may be co-mingled at processing facilities, and so on.

Regardless of how fish are caught and counted, human handling further complicates tracking, since across the supply chain, 15–25 sets of hands may touch the product as it travels from sea to port, processing, wholesalers, distributors, retailers, restaurants, and ultimately to consumers’ plates. As food products move through this complex web of actors, they are transported by planes, trains, trucks, and ships. Keeping track of the chain of custody and the conditions during transport compounds complexity.

Image Credit: FDA/“Pathway to Global Product Safety and Quality” report (2011)

Tracking individual fish across through each of these of these stops would be difficult enough if all fish were sent to be sold whole at markets. But whitefish poses its own problems, since once it has been filleted, one type of whitefish looks indistinguishable from others.

Additionally, the seafood industry is rife with corruption — so much so, in fact, that in 2014 President Obama formed the Presidential Task Force on Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Seafood Fraud. To get an idea of the scale of the fraud problem that task force faces, look no further than the findings published in a September report from Oceana, an international ocean conservation advocacy group. Oceana found that 1-in-5 out of more than 25,000 samples of seafood tested globally were mislabeled. That means people may purchase and consume seafood and fish that’s not what they think it is.

Source: Ocean’s “Oceana Reveals Mislabeling of America’s Favorite Fish: Salmon” (2015)

Another Oceana report from 2015 identified widespread mislabeling of salmon. Of 466 samples tested in U.S. metro areas, 43% were found to be mislabeled. The report looked at both restaurants and grocery stores, differentiating between in-season and out-of-season salmon, with out-of-season salmon from restaurants found to be mislabeled 63% of the time.

Farms on Land

For produce, land-based farming may make some aspects of traceability easier than at sea, but human handling is still present.

“Manual involvement at the field is the biggest hurdle to more granular traceability,” a produce marketer at a prominent company told us. Additionally, she said those traceability solutions tend to be cost prohibitive.

Beyond the farm, the length of the supply chain can vary dramatically from product to product. Lettuce or beets may simply go directly to a farmers’ market or co-op and then on to consumers — or they may embark on a much longer trip through buyers and manufacturers.

Photo Credit: Orange Silicon Valley/Jameson Buffmire

Those steps and attributes add up, and their ultimate sum can have consequences for retailers, as well as consumers.

“Traceability can limit the flexibility of players,” a representative from a large food service company explained to us. “The more attributes I place on my carrot purchase, the more I constrain my supplier. My produce buyer would prefer to buy from the farm selling at the best price.”

So even though produce traceability may be possible in many cases, the companies that need to implement necessary transparency practices face two primary challenges. The first is being able to assign specific attributes, which is an extra level of work. The second is requiring specific attributes, which is possible but tends not to be the buyers’ preference because then they may not be able to get the lowest price.

In both cases, the hurdles are about human factors — not technology.

Commodities Mix Things Up

Whether a food product contains palm oil, wheat flour, cornstarch, or cocoa, commodity ingredients represent a significant component of the food value chain, so it is important to understand the degree of complexity these products add to our global food web. Unlike fish and produce, commodity products — such as palm oil, cocoa, and sugar — are typically co-mingled at the source or processing plant.

To fully appreciate the level of complexity, imagine the harvesting of sugar cane at multiple plantations. The sugarcane harvested across all of a farmers’ fields will be stored in the same silos. Farmers from all over will ship their raw product and it will meet at a centralized processing plant — often miles from where it is grown.

So how does a company or a consumer ensure that the sugar (or palm oil or cocoa) that they buy was grown sustainably? For each individual commodity, there are often multiple organizations that bring together stakeholders across supply chains for every single commodity. It’s not efficient or realistic in most cases to keep each farmer’s harvest segregated as it travels throughout the supply chain.

With those difficulties in mind, there are practices that can improve traceability for sustainable commodity products. One involves mass balance, which is a system for tracking ratios of products according to attributes, then selling the combined volumes with those ratios clearly represented. Another, known as the book and claim system, provides chain-of-custody certification for traceability practices and creates a marketplace for participants.

Neither of these approaches provides perfect and granular solutions, but they do offer openings for companies to increase transparency.

Convincing Companies to Buy In

Opening doors to greater transparency with practices and marketplace solutions is an important foothold for the traceability movement. But getting companies to cut checks for new technology and systems isn’t just about re-configuring practices behind closed doors.

The global food web has many actors, and they make decisions based on a matrix of factors. Convincing key stakeholders to advocate transformative change can be difficult, especially when it comes to operational transparency when risks attract unwanted attention or accountability. In our next post, we will examine the impact of traceability practices on food brands — and why opportunity and anxiety can go hand-in-hand.

Read all of the published Medium posts from our “Paths to Food Traceability” report:

  1. Paths to Food Traceability: Consumer Views of Truth
  2. Paths to Food Traceability: Knots in the Food Web
  3. Paths to Food Traceability: The Biggest Challenges for Brands
  4. Paths to Food Traceability: How Entrepreneurs Can Find Opportunities
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