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Feature

Food chain transparency is the goal

By Michelle Knott , 11-Jan-2016
Last updated on 11-Jan-2016 at 15:31 GMT2016-01-11T15:31:02Z

Technology is being used to improve transparency
Technology is being used to improve transparency

The 2013 Horsemeat Scandal Created A Demand For Better Supply Chain Transparency. Michelle Knott Explains What This Means In Practice

Key points

Traceability is being superseded as a key business goal, says Richard Werran, md of food safety certification firm Cert ID Europe. For consumers, retailers and forward-looking food suppliers, it’s all about transparency, he claims.

“What do retailers and brands really want? They’re trying to regain consumer trust,” he argues. “The buzzword for the next 10 years is transparency. If you have transparency through the supply chain, you have good traceability.”

Increased visibility means going above and beyond communicating one-up and one-down along the immediate supply chain and instead aiming for a view of the wider supply network. This is changing the nature of industry standards, as evidenced in the evolving Global Standard for Food Safety from the British Retail Consortium (BRC). It’s also spurring the development of novel IT tools that are enabling transparency in ways that would not have been possible until recently.

The BRC launched the seventh edition of its Global Standard in July (BRC7), complete with two substantial changes compared with previous editions.

“Traceability has always been a part of the standard but now we require sites we’re auditing to have demonstrable confidence in the traceability systems of their suppliers,” says David Brackston, BRC Trading’s technical director.

That might mean relying on information from existing supplier audits or, if the supplier is ‘low risk’, the customer can rely on the supplier to commission or carry out its own tests and provide them with evidence.

The second change is for companies dealing with brokers or agents. “In the past the agent was classed as the supplier, but in fact the risk is to do with whoever is manufacturing the product [and supplying it to the agent], so a company must request details of the manufacturer from the agent,” says Brackston.

Brokers nervous (return to top)

This is proving to be problematic, as supply chain middle men seek to protect their relationships with producers. “Brokers are very concerned, so in the first year companies must try to negotiate with them but won’t be penalised if they can’t persuade the broker to cooperate. But by July 2016 they’ll need to have that information. We aim to be practical and that gives them time to negotiate or change supplier,” says Brackston.

He understands that brokers are nervous, but argues that good middle men should have little to fear from revealing their sources: “Agents add value to the supply chain in other ways, such as negotiating a better price by buying in bulk, organising imports, warehousing and shipping.”

Werran believes the BRC7 changes mark a sea change in traceability requirements: “Up to BRC6, the Global Standard was all about food safety. Now, in version seven, we’ve got things included that are nothing to do with food safety. What’s very important for an auditee to understand is that the BRC audit is no longer just a food safety audit – it’s a fit-for-purpose business audit.”

He argues that it’s a natural response to put pressure on the BRC to recognise the public’s loss of trust in food manufacturers: “The legal requirement for traceability is to know where you’re getting stuff from and where you’re selling it to but you’d need to know that anyway or you wouldn’t know who to pay or invoice. BRC7 ushers in a whole new level of transparency.”

At the same time, technological solutions are making the goal of true transparency more achievable in practice than ever before. Enterprise resource planning (ERP) software increasingly includes components to help optimise traceability, and there are even moves to shift the power to interrogate supply networks beyond businesses and place it right into the hands of consumers.

For example, IT specialist CSB-System International recently created a full traceability system for meat processor Vion Convenience in Germany. The system helps Vion to comply with the BRC7 requirement for full traceability to a four-hour deadline, enabling all the company’s beef products to be tracked from their retail packaging back to the original farm and individual ear tag.

Furthermore, the system is also compatible with the potentially game-changing fTrace smartphone app, which enables consumers to access this type of information via a quick response (QR) code at the point of purchase.

Chief executive Erwin Kooke says CSB’s traceability system harnesses the information gathered by its wider ERP systems and combines that to deliver traceability. “We are not only a traceability system. Traceability is the result of all the information we have gathered,” he adds.

Benefit (return to top)

He also says that CSB’s systems benefit from an inbuilt manufacturing execution system (MES) underneath the high-level ERP system. This enables the software to ‘talk’ directly with production machines in order to set up recipes and gather feedback automatically, for instance.

This in turn helps keep track of materials as they pass through complex ‘divergent’ processes, such as deboning, and subsequent ‘convergent’ processes, such as combining ingredients into pies or sausages.

In the case of Vion, the CSB System uses manual input via a CSB-Rack station or an electronic data interchange (EDI) delivery notification to collect data on the history of every piece of meat delivered to the company.

Each product is assigned a unique lot number and European Article Number (EAN-128) code, which are used to monitor and confirm its progress through various processing stages, using relevant CSB-System stations. Where a single raw material is used, the lot number stays the same. Where several are processed together, for example for mincemeat, a new lot number is created for all the information of different products.

The same system is used to collate information for pre-packed meat and is used to link all the different packaging elements such as trays and foils. The new lot number for the pre-packed item is then automatically transferred to the weigh price labeller by the CSB System, which provides pricing details, ingredients and the content for the QR code for fTrace.

A ‘totals’ printer at the end of each of the 13 lines in the factory is also controlled by the CSB-System. This assigns a unique serial shipping container code (SSCC) to each box and all crates. In addition, a main SSCC is generated for each completed pallet.

It’s partly cultural and partly thanks to the growth of the fTrace app that Germany is ahead of the game on traceability. fTrace is the brainchild of international standards organisation GS1 Germany. “We currently have more than 250 suppliers now providing traceability information into the service,” says head of traceability Mark Zeller.

App growth (return to top)

The app was launched initially in Germany in 2012 with 15 suppliers, but Zeller says that the number of participants has started to grow much faster in recent months. It’s also expanding internationally, partly thanks to GS1 Germany’s ability to team up with its sister companies around the world. Current activity is mainly focused in Europe, but there are some big suppliers participating in South America and pilot projects underway in China.

The benefits of fTrace for consumers are obvious. Perhaps you’re concerned about animal welfare in meat products, whether your fish was line caught or trawled or maybe the organic credentials or local provenance of your fruit and veg? Whatever the case, simply scan the 2D QR code on the pack and all is revealed.

But Zeller is keen to point out that companies can also benefit. “A lot of companies end up with islands of traceability within one plant because they’re all using different ERP systems. fTrace uses the GS1 Standard so everyone in the supply chain puts information into the system themselves, collecting all the traceability information in a higher platform. Companies can then download that information into their ERP systems.”

Most European IT systems already include interfaces that can port information to and from the fTrace database, and Zeller says that very small suppliers can also participate by inputting information via a dedicated website.

So, today’s evolving IT solutions already appear to hint at what might be possible in future traceability. However, some observers note that it would be easy for IT firms to get carried away with what’s possible in theory, when the reality is that any IT-based solution must make sense in the context of how processors work in practice.

For example, Paul Marston, director of Systems Integration (SI), says that a boning hall may take 100 sides of beef in one batch, in which case downstream systems may trace back to the batch, but not beyond to the individual animal. “We have to look at what’s practical in the processing plant,” he suggests.

SI recently announced that Scottish abattoir Millers of Speyside had invested in its Integreater modular livestock management solution. The resulting visibility throughout the plant means that Millers is able to quickly and easily demonstrate traceability.

Finding information for customer requests and audits used to take hours, but now it takes seconds, according to the company.