Sunday, January 23, 2011

Traceability: Jet Packs of the Food Industry.

Lyndsey Layton wrote an article about traceability in the Washington Post today.  For those unaware, traceability is the idea that food companies can trace exactly which of their ingredients went into each of their products.  Of course, they already know what type of ingredient is going into a specific product, but they may not be exactly sure when that ingredient was received or what lot # is associated with that exact ingredient where it was shipped.

It's confusing, I know.  I'll try to explain a little better and also give my ideas on how this can work.

When the major food safety overhaul passed, it contained a provision that food companies must be able to track where all their ingredients came from and where it's going.  It sounds simple in theory, but there are complications involved.  It's basically how we think about jet packs.  As Joe Rogan said in his stand-up act, 'Where's the jet packs, bitch?!'  We've heard about jet packs since the 50's and yet it never comes to fruition.  We have the technology... so where are they.  Traceability has the same sort of dichotomy involved.  Small problems and a matter of organization make this simple matter, simply complicated.

Here is the situation:  A wheat farmer brings his wheat to market, where it is bought by a mill.  This mill takes in the wheat, cleans it, and mills it into flour.  The mill then sells this flour to one or many food companies for a variety of applications.  The food company may use this shipment of flour on one product, several products, or even several different runs of several different products.  To further complicate matters, the wheat may be mixed with other winter or summer varieties from other farms before it's milled, so if there is a problem with the flour, it can come from anywhere.  This situation is the same for peppers, cilantro, onions, or whatever.

What each buyer/seller in the supply chain must do is track the place they bought from and the place they sold to.  I see the solution involving either rfid tags or upc bar codes.  The original source i.e. farmer, prints a code to affix to any paperwork as well as to the shipment.  This code or tag, when scanned, stores their farm's establishment number as well as a lot number for that item, as well as a time stamp. The next person in line must scan this bar code/tag then print their own.  The tag they print out contains the code from the original source.  This tag/code is printed and affixed to every shipment that contains THAT source. Fast forward to a bakery that is baking multiple products that day and multiple products the next day.  When they got that ingredient in, they scanned the code/tag and replaced it with their own as everyone else has done in the supply chain.  So now their code shows the time location and lot number for that ingredient for EVERY step of the supply chain.  

This is where it get's tricky. The bakery is going to run brownies and two types of cookies with the ingredient.  For each product they create, they must embed a code/tag with the ingredient's information... which contains every step in that process for every ingredient.  This bakery has the codes tied into their inventory system so they can look up and see some sort of a flow chart that shows every step for every ingredient, which can become hundreds of locations/lot numbers.  They can also use this to ensure they're using 'first in, first out'.

Traceability has a number of logistical problems.  First is how to figure out how a system for the lot numbers.  It can't be whatever the farmer/plant manager comes up with because we can't have duplicate codes floating around.  So the lot numbers must somehow use part of their establishment number to differentiate.  Each entity must have compatible computer systems, but honestly, you can do this with an Excel spreadsheet and a bar code scanner gun.

The feds must be the leaders here or what is simple and a little complicate becomes impossible.  They must act on how this framework will exist and they'll need a lot of resources($$) to get it right the first time.  Republicans need to realize this and not fly off the handle and defund it because it grows the government.  You know what's worse than an overblown government?  An inefficient government.  This part of the regulatory system can be a huge bonus to the industry, but if we start smoking and drinking while this baby is in the womb, it's going to be born slow and defective.  So let the government spend the money and staff the agencies with smart people(I'm available) to piece this together the right way so it can run efficiently.

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