Earth First

Trace Your Food Back to its Source

Do you ever wonder where your food comes from? An apple in your local supermarket might have come from down the road, or it might have travelled across continents to end up on that shelf. Read on to find out more about traceability in the food system.

What is traceability?

According to the Cambridge English Dictionary, the definition of traceability (in the realm of commerce and production) is: “the ability to discover information and where and how a product was made.”1

So traceability means we can see the history of a product, tracking it from where it was first produced to which store sold it. We can trace back through the whole supply chain.2

But traceability needs to be managed properly to ensure the quality of a product. It’s especially important when considering supply chain management: when stores recall products, they can then figure out where the product came from, who was involved in the production and what ingredients were used.

Knowing where your food comes from

For a food product, traceability (if properly managed) would allow suppliers and consumers to identify the farm, see what input materials were used, the specific location and the whole life history of a product. It’s comparable to the post (or mail, if you’re based in the U.S.) system when you’re given a tracking number to watch where your package is and where it’s been.

An example of tracing an agricultural product would be stamped number codes on eggs. This number code gives information on the farm, where it’s located, the date of production and whether it is organic or not. And, in case something is wrong with the egg, you could trace it back to the source. Of course, this system is not perfect as you cannot identify more detailed information (e.g. what the chicken was fed, how old the chicken is, etc.), but it’s a start. 3,4

How is your food tracked?

Traceability systems and supply chain management contribute to food safety by giving transparency to products and how and where they are produced. The traceability system for agriculture and food depends on six individual elements: 3

  1. Product traceability: The location of the product during the production process.
  2. Traceability of the process itself: How was it produced? How was it transformed, and what was used for that?
  3. Input traceability: Which materials were put into the product or used for growing it (e.g. fertilizer and feed)?
  4. Genetic makeup
  5. Diseases and pests that could be linked to the product.
  6. Measurement standards: e.g. quality tests

Yes, it takes a lot of work to track and trace just one product but, in the end, this assures that we know exactly what’s in our products. It gives consumers more power over what they buy and why. And, if something happens, we can immediately determine what went wrong and where.

When it comes to new technologies, such as GMO plants in the market and the products produced from them, it can be reassuring that every little detail can be tracked and evaluated.

But traceability is not only a concept for food products; it’s also for every other product on the market, ranging from items like coffee cups to electrical goods.

What makes a product traceable?

To keep track of the product’s history, it’s most important to use some kind of product identification technique. This tracking data is often transferred to the bar code of a product. With food or livestock animals, the most common way is a tag attached to the material or a tag through the ear for animals.

But, this identification process is being modernised with electronic identification. Chip or tags, either found in the animals’ ear or attached to the transport boxes of the processed product, can be read with a scanner carrying the information now.  The data is also stored in an online library or database.3,4

Technologies used for the cultivation of the raw material at farms also contribute to the traceability of a product. If they use a GPS system and environmental observation system to do more site-specific agriculture, the data of those technologies can help give insight into location and growing conditions.

Traceability Legislation

In 2002, the European Union passed a law (the General Food Law) that enforces traceability. All food and feed businesses must have a traceability system, where they record the supplier, customer, what kind of product was delivered and when. If possible, they also need to record quantity and quality. Some sectors require more detailed records.4

This information is required for trade within the EU, or products entering the market and products that travel through the EU. They will be stored in a system called TRACES. It simplifies paperwork, saves trees and everyone can have access to it.4

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