Traceability: What Exactly Is It? - The Blytheco Blog

Traceability: What Exactly Is It?


This is the first in a four-part series exploring the topic of traceability. This post addresses definitions, since “traceability” conjures up different images to different people.

“Where did it come from, where did it go”? Like the old “Cotton-eyed Joe” song, traceability is about where things came from and where they wound up. But there are many applications of this, and many reasons one might want to know the answers to these questions. Let’s explore further:

  • Laboratory traceability: When working in a lab environment you may hear the term traceability used to describe a reference standard or indication of calibration. Imagine you need to weigh something at exactly one pound. Somewhere lies the official one pound weight. Then that weight is compared to another weight that is also a pound, and that is used to verify that something else is truly a pound, etc. This is traceability—the ability to follow a particular measurement back to the official measurement.
  • Genetic traceability: One reason that the US has adopted the term ‘product tracing’ in lieu of traceability is because in Europe, the term “traceability” can mean the ability to trace something back to its genetic origin. In part, this type of traceability can help determine if a product has been produced using genetic engineering.
  • Product tracing: For the remainder of this series we’ll focus on the paper trail that accompanies food products, often called “traceability”. Simply put, this entails following the path of a product (and its ingredients) backward toward production/origin and forward to consumption/disposition. Codex Alimentarius defines it as “the ability to follow the movement of food through specified stage(s) of production processing and distribution.” While it sounds simple, there are many challenges that make traceability difficult.

The ability to trace food backwards and forwards through the supply chain is usually needed in the event of an outbreak or recall. From a regulators standpoint, product tracing is necessary during an outbreak investigation when there are several “suspect foods”, or common items that victims have consumed. The question regulators need to answer is: “Did the victims consume a common item, down to the same processing facility, date of production, etc.?” This is known as the point of convergence.

In contrast, once a food safety issue has been focused to a particular product or ingredient, traceability requires the evaluation of the products pathway in the opposite direction, in order to fully understand where a potentially contaminated product is in the supply chain. When the potentially contaminated product is an ingredient, it’s important to understand additional products that might have used the ingredient so that the risk can be evaluated.

The examples of tracing back to find the point of convergence and tracing forward to understand where a contaminated product might be are the food safety applications of traceability. But traceability information within a company generally stems from other business motivations, such as making sure that there is minimal waste during production, making sure that a suppliers’ quality is meeting expectations, and making sure that you know what you bought and what was sold so that the financial books balance. Thus, not only does the term traceability mean different things to different people, but the ways in which firms achieve it and their reasons for doing so also vary. It will be difficult to move to a state of “better traceability” until we are on the same page about what we mean and what we are trying to accomplish.

Does your processing solution provide you with the key elements of traceability that help to protect your company against the risk of recalls and prepare for regulations? Download the Food Processors’ Top 10 Checklist for Traceability to find out what those elements are and measure how your system stacks up.

Jennifer McEntire, Ph.D.

Jennifer McEntire, Ph.D., Vice President and Chief Science Officer for The Acheson Group, former Senior Staff Scientist and Director of Science & Technology Projects at the Institute of Food Technologists.

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