Manitoba tests IBM food traceability system

The province of Manitoba has successfully tested an information management system that could provide the blueprint for a national agri-food traceability network.

Using software from IBM Corp. business partner and Norway-based TraceTracker Innovation ASA, the province was able to digitally monitor food products as they moved through the supply chain. This includes information about animal history, characteristics, processing history and product movement.

Wayne Lees, chief veterinary officer with Manitoba Agriculture, said the province worked with over a dozen supply chain partners including beef and pork producers, animal feed ingredient suppliers, farmers, truckers and a retail grocery chain. The traceability system, he said, is crucial to both animal health and food safety.

“From an animal health perspective, when we’re using food traceability to track where animals come from, it becomes an important tool to managing outbreaks of animal disease,” Lees said. “As we move farther along the food chain into animal derived products, it’s important to be able to track food from the point of production, which is the farm gate, all the way to the consumer’s plate.”

The recent rash of food safety concerns and product recalls make the establishment of a national food tracking system a necessity, he added.

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The Manitoba project, Lees said, was a proof of concept to demonstrate product information could be collected and digitally stored as it moved through the supply chain. All the participating parties had to capture the product information manually and enter it into a master database. The ultimate goal of the traceability system, however, is to automate all of this data collection so that it is captured and shared electronically, he said.

“Perhaps the greatest challenge is building systems that can talk to each other, such that we don’t have one massive database capturing all this information, but rather a distributed architecture,” Lees said. “Companies can keep track of their own movements internally, but then choose to share certain information with other folks to achieve full chain traceability.”

IBM, which also provided business and project management services for the pilot project, agreed that privacy and security issues must be addressed when rolling out a traceability system.

“The information that needs to be shared is a limited amount, but it’s still proprietary and there are concerns about that,” Susan Wilkinson, solutions executive for IBM’s agri-food traceability team, said. The solution IBM tested with Manitoba, she said, used a distributed or federated architecture, where each company collects and stores their data and later agrees to what get shared.

To further automate the traceability system, she said, the implementation of radio-frequency identification devices (RFID) on animals and products would be a future goal for a more efficient system. Greater insight into how food moves along the supply chain, Wilkinson added, not only helps build consumer confidence, but also gives those in the industry a powerful tool to prove their food is safe.

“The food supply chain is so long and complex with many players involved,” she said. “It’s possible for companies to lose sight of what happened to that food product before it arrives on store shelves. Traceability is about providing transparency and visibility across the chain.”

But one of the biggest obstacles that this traceability system will face, according to Patrick Connaughton, senior analyst at Forrester Research Inc., is the fact that most food is sorted by variables such as quality or size from many farmers into one container and then packaged by a distributor.

“Once that happens you lose specific source traceability and along the way there are many opportunities for cross contamination,” he said. Short of putting an electronic tag on each individual piece food, locking down operations so there is zero chance of cross contamination and eliminating sorting and consolidation of products, this is always going to be a challenge, he added.

While Lees agreed that this would be an issue, he said that the more data the traceability system can collect, the easier it will be to narrow down potential food contaminations.

“A couple of years ago, all the spinach in North America was pulled off the shelves because we couldn’t trace exactly where the contaminated food can from,” he said. It was eventually discovered that the spinach came from a couple of counties in California.

“If we could even track food back to the county or district of origin, that would be a huge step for us,” Lees added.

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