Reassurance is the driving force behind a national program that traces food from the farm to the grocery store using computer-based information systems.
The program, dubbed Can-Trace, is led by the Electronic Commerce Council of Canada. Farm groups, the food industry and government agencies are all collaborating in its development.
The Council has developed a proposal on how Can-Trace would operate and is currently working through comments from industry groups. Mike Sadiwnyk, senior vice-president of industrial relations, says the responses “show that we are on the right track.” The Council wants to complete a draft version of the standard by the end of April and then test it with some pilot projects.
Most food companies keep electronic records of when and where products are produced, and how they are distributed. Livestock producers are already moving to a national computer-based animal registry. What Can-Trace would do is tie this and additional information together in a computer format that industry and government could access to search up and down the distribution chain, enabling them to pinpoint problems.
Most companies have eliminated paper-based searches for details of where their products went in favour of electronic records that can be checked in a matter of moments. Can-Trace would advance this further with a national program.
Traceability has become a hot topic in the food industry. Manufacturers see it as a way to identify the origins of all the ingredients they use so they can ensure that these supplies are all safely grown or produced. Traceability also tells manufacturers where all their products were distributed – a feature that has made it an important tool in food recalls. But the scope of traceability has expanded with technology advances. Can-Trace will also make it easier for government to ensure that unsafe food is recalled.
Tom Feltmate, manager of the food safety risk analysis unit at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, says the system would enable CFIA inspectors and industry representatives to more quickly track a problem in the food supply back to its source and determine how widespread a recall or other corrective action is required.
“It doesn’t guarantee food safety or food quality,” he notes. But it could be an important diagnostic tool once a food safety problem was discovered; industry and government officials could examine the food supply chain to look for areas where corrective action was required. “It would offer us the ability to collect information along the chain,” says Feltmate. “If we wanted to do some follow-up or investigative work, it would make our task easier. We could readily see how a product was handled or treated.”
However, the system must be subject to regular audits so consumers can see that it is working to their benefit, Feltmate adds.
Traceability has also received a big boost from Agriculture Canada. It is working with the provinces on the development of a national food traceability program that would set standards for farmers, processors, distributors and retailers. The Council is endorsing Can-Trace as the best vehicle for delivering those standards once they are agreed on.
Dan Lutz, team leader for traceability in Agriculture Canada’s national food safety committee, says a traceability discussion paper should be ready by late spring. In its Agriculture Policy Framework released last year, the department saw a strong national traceability program giving Canadian food exporters a major benefit in foreign markets where food safety issues are gaining extra attention. Canada could provide buyers with detailed information on how food products are made and handled. T
he Commerce Council’s Sadiwnyk says discussions with industry show widespread support for a national standard that covers the entire food supply chain. “Everyone has to be able to use it. We must not put the bar out of the reach of small and medium-sized companies.” In fact, Sadiwnyk says the ultimate test of the system’s success will be its widespread adoption in the food industry.
In developing the standard, the Council will look at international systems as well as what traceability and recall systems already exist in the Canadian food industry and within farm commodity groups.
Sadiwnyk says standards would start with single ingredient items such as meat, fish, fruits and vegetables and evolve into multi-ingredient processed foods.
Alex Binkley ([email protected]) is an Ottawa writer specializing in agriculture issues