My recent article Traceability myth #1 ‘Consumers want transparency’ discussed how consumer attitudes to transparency are positive, but may not have much affect on purchasing decisions.
Traceability myth #2 explores the myth that traceability is expensive for food businesses. This myth is based on the belief that traceability can only be achieved through the use of specialised business software. Let’s explore this myth in more detail.
Specialised business software is expensive but it is not the only way to achieve traceability. Traceability is the ability to access information about all the ingredients of a food product down to the individual batch or lot of the ingredient, to understand the disposition of all the ingredients and intermediate materials within a production process and to know where the food product went after it was manufactured. The information should be accessible to the food business and able to be retrieved within four hours.
Why is traceability important? Safety of consumers is the number one reason for traceability; it allows fast and effective recall of food products that have been affected by unsafe raw materials or improper processing. Every food safety management system standard includes requirements for traceability. Traceability can also be a huge benefit to market access; put simply, if you have robust traceability systems in place, more retail and food service customers are going to be willing to purchase your foods. Thirdly, traceability comes with huge cost savings in the event of a recall or withdrawal situation; a food business that can accurately trace affected product down to individual lots can save huge sums of money by recalling only those lots that are affected. This can also have a positive affect on insurance premiums.
How to implement a traceability system without using expensive software? The most important thing you will need is a traceability ‘champion’ who is dedicated to the task and who has the support of top management. As the system is implemented it is this person who will check that things are working as they should, that information is being recorded and that their colleagues in the business understand the process and the reasoning behind it. A good first step is to start by editing production record worksheets, such as batch sheets and packing sheets and adding spaces to record a number or code that will identify each lot of finished product and intermediate product. This code should ‘follow’ the lot through the production process, any quality checks and all the way to dispatch. It should be able to be linked to the best before or use-by date on every pack; this can be done with a simple batch number book that contains a list of unique numbers and space to add date of manufacture, product and (afterwards) final disposition of the lot next to each number.
Production records will also need to be amended so that batch numbers or other unique identifiers for raw materials can be recorded. Records need to be kept for all ingredients, intermediate foods and primary packaging materials that go into the process. Personnel responsible for ‘batching’ or adding materials to the process will need to be trained and re-trained to remind them to record these numbers religiously; in a paper-based manual system, these operators are the difference between an effective traceability system and one that will be full of holes.
Raw materials and incoming goods systems are the next part of the implementation; if any of your materials are not supplied with a unique identifier or batch code you will need to create your own and attach it to each lot of material as it is received. This same code will need to accompany any portion of the material as it moves around the facility. Work in progress, re-work, faulty product and product that is on hold awaiting quality checks also need to be labelled.
The final piece of the puzzle is with the sales and dispatch operations; your operators will need to keep a record of which batch lots were dispatched to which customer. The result is a batch number book that contains a unique identifier for each lot of product, with the product and final disposition (sold, destroyed, discarded) accompanied by sets of records for incoming goods, production , quality checks, on-hold or destruction records and sales or dispatch records that can all be linked back to the numbers in the batch book.
Paper-based traceability systems can be simple and relatively inexpensive but they need constant vigilance to ensure that every person who is supposed to be recording batch numbers is doing so in a conscientious manner. All records should be cross checked by a supervisor before being filed and a traceability exercise should be conducted on each product line on a regular basis to make sure the system is working properly.
There are many advantages to be gained from an electronic traceability solution, because they typically allow for more efficient ordering and stock management processes, as well as removing much of the ‘fiddly’ and tedious work from the record-keeping processes and improving access to records. If you have a complex business or are working with materials with a short shelf life, business management software can be worth its weight in gold. However, paper-based systems can and do work very well and are perfectly capable of meeting the traceability requirements of the most picky customers and stringent standards. All you need is a champion.