The Sudan 1 scare once again highlighted the importance of traceability in the food chain to identify contaminated foodstuffs and remove them as quickly as possible.
With 474 affected products in the UK on supermarket shelves or in catering establishments, the task of tracking down chilli adulterated with the potentially cancer forming dye was the biggest ever product recall in the country. The Food Standards Agency, responsible for promoting healthy food, admitted it was difficult to track back food made from the Worcester sauce that contained the dye and it had to update its website daily with fresh information.
At the retail end, the incident was a test of supermarkets’ procedures for withdrawing products in an emergency. They coped well. Tesco, for example, has a system for emergency withdrawal that involves flagging product information kept in its central computer database.
In the event of an alert the system generates reports that are immediately transmitted to its stores where they are printed out. The alert has priority over routine traffic. Once products are flagged as withdrawn they cannot be sold. If they do make it to the checkout, operators receive a warning on their tills when they try and scan lines that have been withdrawn.
Asda, part of Wal-Mart, had invested in a web-based system called Webtraqs that contains a database of hundreds of thousands of Asda-branded products with information about their ingredients, suppliers and nutritional aspects. Asda suppliers around the world can access it. IT systems were crucial in enabling the firm to withdraw 74 products within 24 hours of the alert.
Smaller retailers without sophisticated IT systems had more problems in responding to the recall than the big chains. However, all European participants in the food chain are going to have to up their game following EU regulations introduced this January. The new mandatory traceability requirement applies to all food, animal feed, food-producing animals and all types of food chain operators from the farming sector to processing, transport, storage, distribution and retail to the consumer.
Information on the names and addresses of producers, the nature of products and date of transaction must be systematically registered within each operator’s traceability system. This information must be kept for a period of five years and on request, must immediately be made available to the authorities.
The tracing will be done via delivery notes rather than invoices. ‘Food crises in the past have shown that tracing the commercial flow of a product (by invoices at the level of a company) was not sufficient to follow the physical flow of the products,’ says the EC. ‘Therefore it is essential the traceability system of each food or feed business operator is designed to follow the physical flow of the products: the use of delivery notes (or registration of the address of producing units) ensures more efficient traceability.’
Getting to the bottom of who was responsible for putting the Sudan 1 dye into the chilli has been complicated by the tortuous nature of the food supply chain. Scores of producers, wholesalers, food manufacturers, packers and retailers can be involved in bringing a simple product like chilli powder to the table.
Many of them are outside Europe and therefore not subject to EU regulations, though individual companies may be required to be more transparent by European customers fearful of a repeat of incidents like Sudan 1.
Technology may go some way to automating the process of gathering the kind of information required by the EU regulations. Efforts to create a worldwide system of standard product descriptions as part of the Global Data Synchronisation Network, set up by GS1, will speed the exchange of information about foodstuffs, at least for the largest producers and retailers.
Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) also has a part to play. The EU has carried out tests on tags that keep tabs on animals and is considering making them compulsory by the end of 2007. However, one stumbling block for the scheme is the question of who will foot the bill for the expensive network of readers that will be required on farms, on trucks and in abattoirs.