Mention traceability to anyone in the produce industry these days and one is likely to get one of the following three reactions;
- the respondent rolls his or her eyes and heads for the hills, not wishing to enter into meaningful discussion;
- the eyes rapidly glaze over, one can literally observe as huge $ signs and question marks are being projected onto the respondent’s inner movie screen and any ensuing conversation is dominated by cost related perceptions;
- a variation of the ‘NIMBY’ principle is invoked - Not In My Back Yard. The variation being that “I have traceability, its all of these other growers who are bucking the system.”
Clearly, these approaches do little to help advance our ability as an industry to find solutions to the traceability challenges we face in the domestic produce supply chain. With this in mind, I will attempt in this contribution to provide a strategic overview on produce traceability matters to assist with the task of coming to grips with an increasingly complex topic. There are a number of strategic factors which either directly or indirectly impact not only on traceability per se but through traceability related issues on the industry at large.
Customers & Consumers
Shopping behaviours have changed rapidly during the last 20 years and more changes are just around the corner as our society changes further. Butchers, bakers and greengrocers have not become extinct, on the contrary. The predicted total supermarket domination of the food retail sector has not happened. Greengrocers and Farmers Markets have captured sizeable market share chunks and on-line shopping for fresh produce is entering a new level of sophistication globally with Amazon and others joining the fray.
Today’s customers are therefore far more likely to shun the ‘one stop fits all approach’ that appealed to their parents’ generation and to engage in frequent and split shopping, based on lifestyle need, meal occasion, time of year, career constraints, etc. Advances in technology enable customers and the people they shop for, the people who consume the food items purchased, to access and demand more information about the food about to enter their stomachs. Is it safe to eat? Was it produced locally, or at least regionally or does it come preloaded with carbon miles? Is it organic? How can I be sure that it is not genetically modified? How fresh is it? And just what does ‘quality’ actually mean?
There are no secrets anymore. We live in an age of instant access to information, particular if it is not in the ‘good news’ department. The traditional media channels such as newspapers, magazines, radio and television are in a perpetual state of reinventing themselves. You Tube, Huffington Post and Fresh Plaza are credible examples that entirely new web based communication channels can successfully establish themselves in both the general as well as the industry specific news space. Bad news just about travels at the speed of light today and bad news typically causes damage. It doesn’t actually matter whether what is being reported is factual or not. Once a message is out, it can today be picked up instantly by millions of customers and consumers around the globe. Unfortunately, perception is nine tenth’s of reality. Bad news can easily end up on ‘page 1’ if it serves the purpose of the communication channel that has picked the message up. Retractions are typically published past ‘page 10’ if at all. Retractions do not sell publications or generate advertising. It therefore pays not to be exposed to matters which go wrong, could be misinterpreted, push consumers’ button in a fashion that takes years to correct and could lead to court cases and compensation claims. Today more so than ever.
Corporate retailers have therefore for decades refined their efforts in assuring their customers that their fruits & vegetables are everything they aspire to, and particularly, safe to consume. Most times, this is the case. But spectacular supply chain failures have also been known to occur. Not just in produce, but across the entire fresh foods spectrum. New Zealand is still predominantly an agricultural economy and that it is not a bad thing at all. We have clearly progressed from being the UK’s post WWII market garden where just about everything we produced – lamb, butter, apples and whatever else – was shipped to feed the country some of our ancestors referred to as ‘home’. We are still shipping these products around the globe but we are also adding more value through further processing in New Zealand. Fewer sides of lamb but choice roasts ready for the oven; milk powder in all shapes, concentrations and volumes; and, increasingly meal solution components as opposed to raw commodities.
Our produce offering has become more sophisticated as well. Premium apple varieties bred here in New Zealand, Gold Kiwifruit as well as the standard green variety, and our bagged salads can be found in many an Asian supermarket. With increased in-country value add processes, the risk that something goes wrong increases. And Murphy’s law suggests that things don’t only have a habit of going wrong but that it usually happens when it is least expected or needed. All of this translates into the fact that those elements of the supply chain with lots of money or reputation to lose are busy using their leverage in the market place to ensure that things go wrong as infrequently as possible and that when things do go wrong, they can be rectified as fast as possible to limit the financial damage, the reputational damage and the perception damage.
When Things Do Go Wrong
That is never a pretty sight. Consumers and markets can lose confidence over night. When this lack of confidence is justified, in other words, if some company or process has really been found wanting, then one has to say the resulting negative attention is well justified. However, when the issue is purely perception driven or based on a lack of knowledge on how to protect one’s products and or reputation thought best practice processes and behaviours, then insult is added to injury.
To rectify matters, all concerned typically start scrambling into all directions to identify flawed processes, recall at risk products and attempt to get matters back normal as soon as possible. What really helps in those situations is the ability to accurately and in a timely fashion trace where product has come from right down to the farm or lot level , how it was handled, stored and distributed, the time frames involved and the risk exposure involved. Depending upon where in the supply chain a problem is initially identified, traceability can be anything from a dream to a nightmare.
New Zealand is not exactly a third world country and it is not as if we are hearing about the traceability concept for the first time right now. The reality though is that we have an awful lot of ‘internal’ traceability and somewhat less ‘external’ traceability. The experts define ‘internal’ traceability as the ability to understand and reconstruct what occurs within a defined jurisdiction, for example a pack house or a company. ‘External’ traceability concerns itself with what occurred before the product came into the pack house or the company and after it leaves the pack house on its journey to the consumer. It is in that ‘external’ traceability area where the fresh produce industry is particularly vulnerable.
Our Industry’s Traceability Vulnerability
There are several factors in the wider strategic landscape which when combined suggest that we collaboratively need to improve the produce industry’s external traceability and plug at individual business level whatever remaining internal traceability issues are being identified. The factors I am referring to include;
- The Food Act 2014 will partially come into force on 1 March 2014, with complete implementation in 2019 for fresh produce.
- The Food Act will be enforced through a series of Regulations drawn up by the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI). These are in the post-consultation phase and are likely to be released towards the end of this calendar year.
- The Botulism scare experienced by the Dairy industry in 2013 led to MPI and the Dairy Industry establishing a Working Group to come up with ways to avoid this happening again in the way it did. One of the outcomes from this work was the identification of GS1 Standards as being a suitable and desirable tool to improve dairy product traceability.
- MPI have since let it be known that they consider GS1 Standards to have some application in other agribusiness sectors, including the produce supply chain.
- The Yersinia and Hepatitis A events in 2014 have shown that the produce industry’s external traceability is not as good as it could be.
- The other quite subtle message from the regulator has been that industries which do not display enough maturity to proactively advance their specific traceability challenges can expect more attention from regulator itself.
The domestic fresh produce industry is fairly complex. Many supermarket product supply chains are slick and sophisticated, with traceability being a by-product of best business practice and occurring as a matter of course. At the other end of the spectrum are the vans on the side of the road, selling whatever produce happens to be in season without there being any reference beyond statements such as “Gisborne oranges” or similar and anything in between. It is therefore correct to say that whilst we have numerous individual fruit & vegetable supply chains which work as they are supposed to from a traceability perspective, our national crop supply chains contain sizeable traceability gaps and flaws which expose consumers and the industry itself to risk.
As an industry, we need to accept responsibility for not only establishing ‘internal’ traceability within our own respective organisations but for working collaboratively to extend ‘external’ traceability where it is present in part but not yet complete and establishing it where it is currently absent. United Fresh, the pan-industry produce trade association, has accepted that challenge and established its Food Safety & Traceability Committee. Retailers, wholesalers, growers and service providers are working together under the United Fresh banner to effect necessary change.
Your support is needed and appreciated.
Please note: this piece was written wearing my hat as Chair of the United Fresh New Zealand Food Safety & Traceability Committee