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What’s needed for a good traceability system

What’s needed for a good traceability system

By Barry McGookin

Almost all products are sold on trust. It’s assumed by the buyer that the seller is providing a legitimate item at a quality standard in line with the price being paid. Not surprisingly, but sadly, the more profit to be made, the greater likelihood someone will seek to counterfeit, fraud or reposition a product in their favour. With more consumer focus on the certainty of where food comes from, being able to trace the journey of food from origin to point of sale is a rapidly growing expectation. While traceability for food safety has been an expectation in the supply chain for many years, the demand for complete transparency of the product journey has seen a sharp increase in recent years.

The more valuable an item the more it’s worth keeping track on where it is when not under your direct control.

To know where an item is within a supply chain is one thing. To know if the supply chain or the product has been breached is another. Both questions require visibility of data between participants in the supply chain. The ability to ensure quality or legitimacy is needed for ongoing trade, but it’s not always possible at point of purchase, a reality that has been the source of many confrontations over thousands of years.

Traceability is more and more being achieved by an electronic tracking system capable linked with the unit or units being shipped as a group. The data on the products is then passed as to a selected group of stakeholders in the supply chain. Knowing where a product shipment is has the ability to reduce the opportunity for tampering and increases the data to support activities related to ownership exchange of goods.

Over time as companies have addressed the challenge of transparency of location and data capture in varying ways. An assessment of the approaches indicates that there are 4 key supports to traceability. The best result coming from the highest number of combinations of the elements.  

  1. A physical barrier or deterrent.
    • All food and beverage products need to be transported using a container of some type. The container provides product protection, options for identification of the product and a transport device
    • To allow traceability a container & product needs to be;
      1. uniquely identified or identifiable
      2. able to deliver some information on its journey
      3. resist or minimise the ability for tampering or counterfeiting
  2. Use a traceability platform to capture and trace data           
    • A set of processes quality and supply chain data capture and transfer procedures and standards.
      1. Ideally processes are data or information formats and sharing protocols agreed by all parties along the supply chain with backing by regulatory bodies where necessary
      2. Data integrity and privacy is key for all parties using any system
      3. A physical capability that provides data which identifies each unit and its composition e.g. Labels or pallet tags
    • There is a wide range of platforms for data capture and sharing. In particular there is a burgeoning number of IT systems available with varying capability and ability to capture and manage data complexity and numbers of customers to data of different types and at different stages of a container/product journey. Any data management system should allow;
      1. geopositional data capture, ideally in real time, to show the location of a consignment at any given time
      2. capture of key information needed to demonstrate compliance to regulatory and/or product needs e.g. cold chain compliance for fresh meat
      3. sharing among the partners in the supply chain as needed
      4. protect the data from external disruption
  3. A stable regulatory and scientific framework
    • While many types of data can be captured or shared, the regulatory framework provides the basic boundaries and rules agreed between agencies or governments that allow the transfer of container/product ownership between or amongst value chain participants
    • Variability between agency regulatory requirements complicates the data capture and management and can restrict ownership transfer e.g. Incorrect records of procurement can prevent sale at a later point in the value chain
    • A stable scientific framework allows for quality assessment procedures to be formalised and agreed across borders and testing agencies to reduce challenges to product / container characterisation or identification markers
    • Agrees the skill sets for creation and acceptance of data
  4. Training and investment in human capital and trusted partners to create as secure or closed supply loop as possible
    • With variable human capability in capturing, transferring and interpreting data, traceability can be compromised due to variability in the data
    • Without agreement of what can and can’t be accepted in terms of data and its quality data needed for a full traceability profile can be missed

As with many things, the cost and resources needed to implement and manage a traceability system varies widely. There is no ‘one size fits all’. What suits a small company may not fit a large organisation with more resources. An integrated supply chain will have differing needs to one with a wide range of suppliers. A very high value product may need a system with a much more robust financial security v products in a typical market basket – but it may not.

Items to consider when choosing a traceability IT system is the topic of another information article.


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