When Blue Bell discovered its second listeria contamination in two years in the cookie dough varieties of its ice cream products, the company's traceability plan sprung into action. Because the company had recently overhauled its facilities and passed state health inspections, Blue Bell looked for the particular ingredient that may have been contaminated before arriving at its facility, known as looking “one-back.”
Blue Bell identified its cookie dough supplier, Aspen Hills, as the source of the contamination. Though the company at first disputed these claims — citing negative results from its own testing — Aspen Hills eventually initiated its own recall. The company contacted its manufacturing customers to ensure they recalled any of their own products that might contain the contaminated ingredient, known as looking “one-up.”
This is an example of the “one-up-one-back” approach. It's commonly used in the food industry, but may not always account for anomalies that occur farther back or forward in the supply chain.
“There's not really a robust, industrywide enhanced traceability for manufacturers to look all the way back and all the way forward,” Katy Jones, VP of marketing at FoodLogiQ, told Food Dive. “So you do see a lot of those types of recalls where a food company needs to know where they sourced their food from.”
Food safety experts say that whole chain traceability may be the key to faster, more concentrated and less costly recalls, improved food safety and increased transparency in the food and beverage industry. But due to a variety of challenges, others wonder if whole chain traceability is feasible.
The problem with the “one-up-one-back” approach
Much of the food and beverage industry currently follows this standardized “one-up-one-back” approach when it comes to supply chain traceability, Jones said. Manufacturers usually know their direct suppliers (one-back) and direct customers (one-up), but supply chain visibility tends to stop there.
A handful of major recalls in the past decade have brought the need for increased traceability into the spotlight. Cargill experienced the fallout of the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) salmonella outbreak in 2008 and 2009. But the company didn’t realize the problem right away because the ultimate source of the contamination wasn’t on its supply chain radar, Mike Robach, VP of corporate food safety, quality and regulatory at Cargill, said during a press lunch at a GFSI forum.
“We focus per the regulations one-up-one-back, but I would say even with some of our contract manufacturers we go two back — we go to their suppliers,” said Robach. “[During the PCA recall], we had a supplier of a supplier to the contract manufacturer who was making a blended material with some of the contaminated peanut butter. But we found out six months after everyone else did because it was so far back in the supply chain.”
“The ongoing challenge we have is that visibility,” Robach continued. “The further back you go becomes more and more difficult. (PCA) was a great example for us. We thought we were in the clear because the co-manufacturer said, ‘Well, none of our suppliers are implicated,’ but it was the supplier to the supplier.”
From this year’s General Mills flour recall to the mysterious sugar recall from an unknown supplier, this scenario is all too common across the industry.
Is whole chain traceability possible?
Because the standard one-up-one-back method for traceability leads to complications down the line for manufacturers, some food safety experts tout the benefits of whole chain traceability, where a manufacturer can find sourcing and food safety practices from end to end of its supply chain, from farm to fork.
But with the complex nature of today’s global supply chains, is this a feasible goal for manufacturers? While challenges lay ahead, many in the industry, including GFSI, believe it is a task worth undertaking.
In the meantime, Robach described the journey toward whole chain traceability as evolving in the midst of a “continuous improvement process.” Several challenges could get in the way of a manufacturer trying to achieve it.
Some products and commodities may have an easier time implementing whole chain traceability than others due to the nature of standard harvesting, processing, storage and delivery practices, Robach said.
“If I have an integrated supply chain, I could trace it back,” said Robach. “I can trace turkeys, or I can trace animals or eggs back to the farm, and I've got all the information with the feed, and everything you'd ever want to know about that animal.”
“But if you're talking about flour or soybean oil, canola oil or margarine, it gets increasingly difficult,” Robach continued. “That’s especially if you think about the harvesting of grains and things like wheat or soy — there's a lot of co-mingling that goes on from hundreds of farms that come into an elevator, and then they get distributed out to the processing plants. (Tracing that ingredient) back to an exact field is next to impossible.”
Willingness and ability to share data
Mondelez International’s senior director of global quality Peter Begg brought up another key issue for manufacturers and retailers attempting to establish whole chain traceability. The challenge is not always whether companies are capable of sharing information about their ingredient sourcing or safety practices. It’s whether they choose — or are permitted — to do so by local laws.
For an international company like Mondelez that sources ingredients from dozens of countries, this can be acutely complex.
“There's a lot of data privacy laws in Europe which makes sharing of information a lot more challenging than in other countries,” Begg said during the GFSI press lunch. “… That willingness to be more transparent on the data is going to be a challenge.”
“Systems can get there,” Begg continued. “If you look at the last 30 years and how rapidly systems have accelerated and given us visibility to the supply chain, I think that will only continue to evolve. In 30 years, I can see us having the ability to have whole chain visibility. The question is, are people going to be willing to share the information? I don't know.”
Embracing more advanced technology
Another challenge for many manufacturers will be to let go of old ways of organizing and reporting operational and safety data. Many will have to do this in order to comply with new FSMA regulations, but manufacturers must also rely on their suppliers and customers — and those companies' suppliers and customers — to do the same for true supply chain visibility.
“At the heart of it, it’s just knowing, onboarding and approving your suppliers, which for some food companies is still a struggle,” said Jones. “If they're managing their suppliers in spreadsheets, personal relationships, phone calls, things like that, then that communication or that approval or disapproval is not communicated to purchasing. Then you're buying product from a supplier that's not approved, or a supplier that you've had quality issues with in the past, and that's where you see food safety break down.”
Why traceability is critical beyond recalls
Much of the urgency for traceability centers around food safety and the ability to speed up the recall process, but the benefits of whole chain traceability for manufacturers spans well beyond recalls. Consumer demands and pressure from the marketplace — including a manufacturer’s own suppliers and customers, or federal and state regulators — will be a major driver for increased supply chain visibility.
“The companies that are going to proactively address (traceability) are going to be the ones that are going to win in the marketplace,” said Jones. “Traceability can be not just about business practices, but it also can enable the company to use the information they're gathering to pass on to the consumer.”
Traceability also has significant implications for labeling — or mislabeling — for various health and ingredient claims, such as non-GMO or organic.
“The companies that are going to proactively address (traceability) are going to be the ones that are going to win in the marketplace.”
Vice president of marketing, FoodLogiQ
“If you don't know for certain that your suppliers are providing you with food that aligns to that grand claim, you're in an extremely risky environment,” Jones said. More companies, media organizations and consumers are uncovering issues around mislabeling and around companies selling food that isn't what they say it is.”
DNA testing, such as from food analytics company Clear Labs, more definitively identifies the species of plants, animals, bacteria and other contaminants that a food or beverage product might contain. If test results don’t match the ingredients or claims on a product label, it can lead to costly litigation.
But litigation doesn’t always stem from purposeful tainting of the food supply. Often, better traceability systems could have remedied the issue before it became fodder for a lawsuit.
“I don't get the sense that across the industry it's a malicious thing,” said Jones. “It’s an issue around not certifying and not getting that information from your supplier to have that visibility. That's what causes this disconnect and these issues of mislabeling.”
Improving supply chain visibility and traceability also makes good business sense and can end up saving companies by improving the ways manufacturers and retailers monitor the quality of their suppliers, said Jones.
“To know that those suppliers have the same commitment to quality and safety as your brand is critical,” said Jones. “If you can monitor over time, ‘We've had five quality incidents from X tomato company, and none from this, I'm going to do more business with the supplier that we haven't had any quality issues with.’ That protects your brand. Over time, hopefully that makes for a safer supply chain as you're able to communicate issues back to your supplier.”
Organizations like GFSI and software providers can help manufacturers improve communication and data sharing across their supply chains and ultimately achieve better visibility. But before long, traceability won’t just be a “nice-to-have” or even an advantage, because the principles of traceability are at the core of many of the FSMA regulations manufacturers are having to implement now and into the next few years.
“When you look at it from a FSMA perspective, (whole chain traceability) can give you a significant amount of information and power to really have transparency and visibility across your supply chain,” said Jones. “…To be able to have real visibility across your entire supply chain, to know at a minimum who you're doing business with and their quality and that they're an approved supplier, that's a piece of FSMA.”