“Show more consideration to the companies”

We need food traceability systems that also take care of commercially sensitive information, says Kathryn Anne-Marie Donnelly, who has just presented her Doctoral dissertation on food traceability.

The increasing globalization and intensification of food production has led to food-related health incidents, such as mad cow disease and dioxins in chicken feed. Research points to the fact that the further away consumers become from the food production, the greater their need for information in order to trust that the food is safe to eat. Consequently, information about raw materials, processing and origin of the food has taken on a much greater significance.

According to the British Food Standards Agency (FSA), such information is not regularly supplied even though it is becoming increasingly necessary to fulfil legal requirements and to meet import and export demands.

The introduction of traceability in the food industry is more challenging than, for instance, tracing packages at the post office. Unlike products that have the same owner throughout production and distribution and, as such, have full control the entire chain from production to consumer, with food products there are often many different ownership interests. Food production is also characterised by large fluctuations in the availability of raw materials, demand, weather conditions and so on.

The information exists

As part of her doctorate Scientist Kathryn Donnelly has studied which factors are important in order to receive better information about food products.

“Bringing product and process information about food to consumers should not, at first glance, be difficult,” says Donnelly.  “Most of the required information already exists within food supply chains and is used in a plethora of situations from food safety to marketing. Therefore, you might expect that discovering the origin of a food product would be easy.”

Even though considerable information exists at each link in the supply chain, only a small proportion of the information is transferred from one link to the next. A lot of work has been put into developing good systems so that information can follow the product right from, for instance, the farm or fishing boat, through to the consumer. The development of ISO standards for supply chain traceability of fish products has just been completed and these will now be sent out for comment worldwide. Donnelly’s dissertation also provides a basis for work to start on standard for traceability of other food products, such as grain, chicken and honey.

Holding onto the information

However, one of the studies showed that it was only possible to trace the origin of just over 50 % of the food products that were tested.

“Traceability systems are relatively easy to start using, but fear that trade secrets will get out mean that many food producers are resisting,” says Donnelly.

“We want to conduct more research on how it is possible to take care of confidential conditions while at the same time ensuring that sufficient information about the food is available for retailers and consumers.”

This dissertation presents a host of practical advice that will be useful for those wanting to start using traceability systems.

Kathryn Anne-Marie Donnelly is originally from Manchester, England, and has worked as a scientist at Nofima since 2007. She presented her Doctoral dissertation at the University of Tromsø.

Industrial economics and strategic management  

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