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The effects of COVID-19 on food and agriculture traceability

Digital Solutions Aid Adoption.

Scrutiny in food production has steadily increased due to food safety recalls, consumer demand, and sustainability efforts. The pandemic intensified this scrutiny.

According to Bryan Hitchcock of the Global Food Traceability Center (GFTC), the principles of traceability serve agriculture well by allowing better real-time decision making.

“Traceability tools and systems enable food and agriculture stakeholders to further digitize their supply chains, gaining deeper insights into optimization opportunities, sustainability impacts, and chain of custody,” Hitchcock explains. “We see the digitization of supply chains further accelerating as the pandemic subsides.

Hitchcock and his team at the GFTC provide regulators, standards bodies, and trade associations with best practices on traceability. He says with the pandemic’s far-reaching implications, advancing digital capabilities should boost the ag industry’s agility in the face of future challenges.

What is traceability?

BH: Traceability is the systematic ability to trace the path of food ingredients and/or finished products throughout their entire lifecycle, using previously captured and stored records. These records catalog key data elements (KDEs) at critical tracking events (CTEs).

What are the advantages of traceability in agriculture? 

BH: Food traceability is essential to mitigate and manage risk around food safety recalls. Traceability enables the industry to better protect consumers, animal, or plant health, especially when large quantities of contaminated products have been distributed across widespread markets.

Regarding agriculture, traceability principles enable deep insights into agricultural practices and supply chain management thereby allowing better real-time decision making. For example, producers can leverage traceability technology to enhance crop management, including optimizing harvest time and distribution. In addition, traceability aids in risk management related to foodborne illness outbreaks and recalls.

What new or existing technologies may support traceability?

BH: We see the deployment of digital tools (e.g. IoT sensors, artificial intelligence, machine learning, and advanced data analytics) helping stakeholders across the supply chain. Right now, we’re in the early phases of data-driven production, manufacturing, and overall supply chains. However, the technology community is actively developing and rolling out new capabilities. And in light of the current pandemic, we may see increased influence and adoption of such technologies.

How is the Global Food Traceability team working with regulatory agencies?

BH: IFT proactively serves as an objective voice in public dialogue on food and nutrition-related issues to advocate for science-based outcomes. GFTC’s work provides regulators, standards bodies, and trade associations with best practices, including open source tools and the opportunity to convene thoughtful private-public dialogue.

For example, in 2010, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) contracted with the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) to develop two pilot projects designed to test and study various product tracing practices for fresh produce and processed foods. In 2012, IFT submitted the report to the FDA, which was required by the Food Safety Modernization Act, offering recommendations to the FDA on how to improve traceability in a way that benefits all stakeholders.

Since 2017, IFT’s GFTC has been working with the World Wildlife Fund for Nature to advance a unified framework by convening seafood companies and other relevant stakeholders.

In 2019, IFT provided written comments to the Division of Dockets Management Food and Drug Administration on the New Era of Smarter Food Safety, focused on building effective traceability systems while digital and physical technologies are leveraged to enhance food supply safety and efficacy of the food system.

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