Traceability in food supply chains

The recent events involving a major multinational in India has put the spotlight on concerns regarding what we eat. There have been numerous instances in the past when we have learnt that what we consume may not be what we expected. A few years back Europeans discovered to their chagrin that what was sold to them as beef was actually horse meat. Nearer home, the cola majors have faced scrutiny over pesticide contamination. Nothing seems to be above board, fruit, vegetables, meat, poultry and packaged food all seem to be sub par. Fresh fruits and vegetables seem to be increasingly pesticide laden and packaged foods seem to have excess sugar, sodium, salt and other high impact ingredients. Milk allergies are seen to be on the rise, so are gluten and egg allergies. These can be attributed to two factors – lifestyle changes and ingredients that are now found as a result of food processing practices.

The push needs to come from both ends – the government as well as the consumer. Governments need to make food safety a public health priority by developing appropriate policies and regulatory frameworks. They also need to establish effective food safety systems ensuring that producers and suppliers along the whole good chain promote and supply safe food to the consumers. Consumers, on the other hand, must demand strict adherence to food safety laws. They must know the food that they eat by reading labels on food that they eat. They must also, unequivocally, steer clear of products that have unsatisfactory safety reputation.
Food producers clearly have a responsibility of their own. They must ensure that stringent tests are conducted on all inputs at all stages of the food items entering the value chain. The food handlers must handle and prepare food safely. This should be maintained right down to the point of sale.

And this push needs to focus on two key areas – trust and traceability.

Trust – to be confident that one’s consumption is safe. This trust comes from many sources – experience, product reliability, communication and branding. A breach of trust can sound the death knell of consumer’s faith in the product.

Traceability – to be able to verify the history and location of the food chain. This involves building supply chains that are transparent and provide an easy way to assess where contamination is occurring. Traceability improves product sourcing, reduces costs and ensures a healthy output.

Value chain analysis
Companies need to evaluate each element of the value chain as broken down below and figuring out what goes on at each stage, ensuring that each aspect is focused on meticulously and any deviations from standards handled there itself. For instance, product safety can be compromised at procurement stage and hence stringent checks need to be emphasized. Or, for instance, in-store activities need to focus on expired/spoiled products and guard against spurious products reaching the shelves.

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What does this call for?
Corporations need to make an additional effort to ensure that their food supply chains are traceable. This would involve active understanding and monitoring of farming practices, testing of products at all stages where they enter the final product, providing incentives to all input points to comply with exacting standards. It is not just enough for them to be doing all but they also need to communicate it in adequate measure.

Governments need to build systems and processes that ensure that corporations adhere to strict food safety norms and adhere to accurate labelling. This needs to be on-going process rather than one-offs. Laws need to be tightened so that they are deterrent to violators of food safety. A key role of government would be in ensuring that farming and cold chains are adequate to prevent contamination.

Consumers also need to become more aware. They need to focus on food labelling, take note of expiry period on food items, ensure they are quality conscious of all inputs that go in making of a meal, voice their opinion on products that they have discomfort with. Corporations may be giants but an individual consumer can take on their might by voicing its opinion and shunning the products.

Article coauthored with Utkarsh Majmudar and originally published in Economic Times.

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