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Keeping pace with keeping track

If any lesson was learned after recent outbreaks of food-borne illness, it is: the faster the problem is traced, the sooner it can be fixed and confidence in the food system can be restored. By tracing food from field to the consumer’s plate, the source of a problem can be identified quickly and an entire industry is not targeted unfairly. Such would have been the case if the initial reports of E. coli in spinach from California in 2006 could have pinpointed the farm the spinach came from rather than the entire state spinach crop.

In 2003, an outbreak of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE or “mad cow disease”) hurt Canada’s beef industry, just as a subsequent “tainted spinach” issue caused the California industry to suffer. But, whereas the beef industry has since managed the issue of traceability to allow a pound of hamburger to be identified as coming from the progeny of a cow in Alberta and a bull in Ontario, the same cannot be said for all vegetable crops. That is changing.

Part of the challenge is that fruits and vegetables cannot be micro-chipped and bar coding on rough-skinned vegetables is difficult. Driven by the processing industry, traceability, at the outset, seems to add more load to a grower’s already busy schedule, but some growers are finding the additional data collection is assisting them in managing the crop.

Traceability is a multi-layered issue and can remind growers what was done in a field to assist in resistance management and crop rotation. It can be used to reassure consumers that the food is safe. In addition, the information can be used to track stewardship and ensure environmental protection. “Traceability is partly a quality issue, but it is also being used to inform the public that processors and retailers are buying locally by allowing us to track where food comes from,” explains Dr. David Sparling of the Richard Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Ontario in London. “There is also a growing pressure to be able to measure and track the impact on the environment, such as reduced pesticide use or water conservation.”

Many processors are driving the issue because they want to know how sustainable their respective growers are and pass the information on to retailers and consumers, he adds. “It sounds daunting, but we are seeing that when growers start taking stock of what they do, they are also finding ways to improve,” Sparling continues.

In Manitoba, the largest vegetable supplier, Peak of the Market, has been tracing the products delivered to its Distribution Centre since 2003. The co-operative’s president and chief executive officer Larry McIntosh, says the number one issue with consumers is food safety. Traceability can help reassure them the food is safe, he says, because, should problems arise, they can be identified and dealt with quickly. “We can isolate the problem and track the exact lot,” explains McIntosh. “If the problem is with one grower, we can isolate that shipment.”

The chair of Peak of the Market, and a potato grower, says part of the issue is that most Canadians no longer have a connection to the farm and this leads them to be suspicious of their food supply. “We have to reassure consumers their food is safe,” says Keith Kuhl of Winkler, Manitoba. “If there is an issue with any of the products we sell and the person still has the package the potatoes came in, we can trace those potatoes to the field in which they were grown.”

That level of information tracking also has benefits to growers. Shelbourne, Ontario, grower Scott Rutledge, says he can trace a bag of potatoes back to his storage and from there to where and when he “put it in the ground.”  He says having the tracing information also helps him with his crop management.

“If there is a problem, you want to find it right away,” Rutledge says. “It might be that it can be traced to a mechanical problem with the equipment or it might trace back to the seed supplier. Maybe the real issue is liability, so growers need to keep good records for their own protection. Since farmers tend to be the first guy on the list, we need to be able to find answers.”

The information in his computerized traceability program is good to have, he continues, because he can track his management decisions as well and make adjustments if necessary. He says he has records going back five years which give him a picture of what worked and what did not.

Dr. Sparling says the information stored and then analyzed can actually assist growers. “I think there are many growers who don’t spend as much time analyzing their costs and value as they could,” he comments. “But, hopefully, when they begin, they will see the electronic trail will give them quick access to information to improve their processes and profitability.”

Currently, bags of potatoes can be bar coded and, with that code, the origin of the bag can be traced. But, the future lies in radio frequency identification (RFID) that allows for easier collection and sharing of information. “With RFID, analysis of individual fields is possible and that could save growers money, improve management and identify problems,” Sparling explains. “RFID coding can track the potatoes from field to storage and even record at what temperature the crop was stored.”

But, that is the future, and there are still gaps in the traceability system: for example, there are reports that warehouses that act as “middlemen” to store crops prior to shipping to processors, are not interested in traceability because, they feel it creates more work. Meanwhile, growers who are keeping track do not always have their information passed on to their processors. Most of the growers and experts believe the system is still evolving and that adoption will eventually arrive. “Traceability is a must, but if it becomes too complicated as more information is required, it might be harder to get compliance nationally,” worries McIntosh.

To lead the way and help growers get involved in traceability, OnTrace Agri-Food Traceability was formed in Guelph. This not-for-profit corporation helps growers understand traceability and assists them in developing systems for their operation. “There is a minimum amount of information required to track a product,” explains Brian Sterling, OnTrace’s chief executive officer. “It gets more complicated when you want to include more information, such as saying the potatoes are pesticide free
or organic.”

He says 25 percent of Ontario growers are voluntarily registering their farms with OnTrace as part of traceability, but the government would like 100 percent compliance. He does not believe a voluntary system will ever reach 100 percent, so growers and packers need to address this as an industry and determine the approach they can accept.

“This is not going to go away. OnTrace is building a system that connects producers with shippers and warehouses; in fact, we have the ability to link all systems together in what we call a secure ‘inter-party’ system,” explains Sterling. “Consumers want information about the source of their food, but the industry needs to determine what is needed and how to comply with this growing demand for information. It is no longer sufficient to have ‘one-up/one-down’ knowledge; the consumer is asking about the entire chain of events that brings food to their table.”

“Whenever a bar code is required, we’re prepared to do it,” says Rutledge. “We find that not all systems are ready for this, but it is coming and we’re set up to comply. Right now, it is helping us to be better at what we do.”

“It may take time to determine what will work best for the potato industry,” Sparling comments. “This isn’t a new concept; it is done in other industries, but it has to be adapted to agriculture. Likely an industry-wide solution will be found and then that system will be tailored to individual crops. Growers should get involved now in setting the standards for what will work best for potatoes.”

Although individual growers are taking the initiative to set up traceability systems, and some processors and packers are demanding a system, and governments are asking for it, the real push for compliance may come from outside Canada as our international customers begin to demand traceability. When that happens, it may be imperative for a national system to be developed. Grower organizations may want to begin now educating their membership and developing strategies and researching systems in order to be ready. There may come a day
when a bag of potato chips sold in Florida may need to be traced to a farm in Canada.