There was rather more reason for the gaps on the UK’s supermarket shelves last month than simple supply chain inefficiency. Some 470 products were pulled and the food sector lost around £150m all due to microscopic amounts of an obscure dye called Sudan1.
As this latest food scare hit the headlines the importance of tracing every last grain of salt, or in this case, chilli powder, took on new meaning.
Sudan1 may be nasty stuff, but given the amounts of chilli powder, diluted by way of Worcester sauce, likely to end up in the average jar of seafood dressing or ready-made pizza, one would have had to be living on tons of the stuff for years for the toxin to even approach danger levels.
Interestingly, David Statham, director of the enforcement and food standards group at the Food Standards Agency (FSA), had been highlighting the Sudan1 problem last September at Osney Media’s Food Traceability Forum. At that stage suspect batches of chilli powder had been under investigation for 18 months and 200 products containing the toxin had been identified.
He was using the Sudan1 example to explain how food producers must not just comply with the ‘one-up, onedown’ interpretation of the EU’s food traceability rules but must show due diligence and focus on ‘positive release’, ie not putting food products on sale until they are certain the
goods are safe.
The Sudan1 scare coincided with the official launch of GS1 in Brussels. Those with long memories will recall something called the Article Numbering Association formed way back in the 1970s to manage the issue of bar codes, and later something we used to call Tradacoms as electronic data interchange was born. The ANA became EAN, then EAN-UCC once the European Article Numbering body had joined forces with
North America’s Uniform Code Council, and now it has been reborn as GS1 with a mission to bring global standards to a disordered world, to
synchronise data across some 152 product attributes, to ease the path of global commerce, and to provide universal traceability for the food sector.
GS1 is already issuing traceability guidelines for food companies and is looking to dene and analyse gaps in global tracing schemes especially upstream to raw materials suppliers (such as purveyors of chilli powder).
The Sudan1 problem has, in part, demonstrated how efficient existing downstream food traceability schemes are since as soon as the suspect batch of Worcester sauce had been identified supermarkets began pulling products from the shelves even before the FSA issued its public warning. The recall systems clearly worked. Although as Statham pointed out six months ago, dodgy chilli powder had then been under investigation for 18 months which means the latest round of recalls came two years after the tainted powder was first identified.
CPG manufacturers and their retail customers place great emphasis on achieving supply chain visibility. It is after all a prime rationale for RFID, but the emphasis is largely downstream. The one-up, one-down interpretation of the rules also means few retailers have much idea where the dozens of raw materials in their ready-made foods come from.
As Statham also pointed out last year, some purveyors of exotic spices are basically one man with a phone, buying and selling consignments from around the world.
GS1 already has in place a Global Upstream Suppliers Initiative aimed at developing standard processes and data interchange for primary producers. It argues that streamlining systems here could even save industry $2bn or more globally each year in having uniform product files (and presumably uniform certificates of authentication and testing).
Also on the GS1 list is an network of data pools where retailers can instantly source information about any coded product, checking those 152 attributes as needed. Create a similar upstream model and you’d hope that next time some producer of chilli powder wants to make his product look a nicer shade of red, suppliers, and the FSA, could identify precisely where the suspect batch went to within days rather than the two years tracking down the route this particular tint of Sudan1 took.