Data gathering and software are integral to the continued advancement of traceability in food production


Traceability in food production is increasingly in demand, with calls for accurate information on farming inputs and practices, so that the consumer can know exactly where food comes from – and what has gone into producing it.

For farmers, this can appear to be a bit of a headache, with greater demands on their time in the form of paperwork and record keeping. So, what technology is available to record traceability information for farmers, without draining valuable resources?

The International Organisation for Standardisation defines traceability as the ‘ability to follow movement of feed or food through specific stage(s) of production, processing and distribution’. In essence, traceability is the collection, documentation, maintenance and application of all information related to the production and processes food goes through in the supply chain. It provides information on inputs, locations and history of the product that can assist with crises management in the event of a safety or quality breach, while also contributing to transparency and adding value to products.[1]

Globally, the desire for greater awareness of the origins of food has been driven by a number of factors, including disease scares such as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE)-salmonella and most recently, avian influenza. On top of this, the international trade of food is continually increasing and unpredictable supplies as well as the perishable nature of food has therefore heightened the need for quality and safety assurance.[2]

In instances of contamination or disease outbreak, traceability can allow for specific identification of what is affected, when, where, how and who is responsible. Though it does not prevent disease outbreaks from occurring, it can help identify the source so that infected produce can therefore be pinpointed and removed from the food chain with ease and speed.

Consumer concerns are one of the major drivers behind traceability, as demand has increased for top quality, safe and nutritious food that is traceable to its origin.[3] With the development of genetically modified organisms and the interest in organic produce, consumers want to know what they consume and if packaging is labelled accurately. Along with biosecurity concerns, and incidents such as the horse meat scandal, questions have also been raised about the environmental and ecological impacts of farming practices – something farmers have been able to tackle through traceability.

Brand security and market protection are other factors that have stimulated traceability. Having transparency in the supply chain means producers can support claims about the purity of their produce and demand a higher price.

Most recently, fears surrounding antibiotic usage in livestock leading to resistance in humans[4] has led to a real shift in farming practices, with farmers now having to prove that they have not misused antibiotics in livestock production.

Traceability systems include the identification of produce – whether livestock, arable or horticultural – information about that produce and linking and transferring this data to the next stage.[5] Starting on the farm, this goes through the manufacturer, distributor, retailer and onto the consumer, linked by transportation throughout the chain. It comprises an information management system, with scanning and other digital technology for product identification, image capture, storage, non-destructive testing, biosensors for quality and safety assessment and geospatial tracking technology.[6]

Accurate livestock identification is vital to traceability, usually recorded through tags. Electronic identification tags (EIDs) are now compulsory for sheep in the UK making it easier to record and monitor performance, as well as speeding up processes that would previously have been recorded on paper. Tags also allow for immediate access to animal data and can aid management decisions.[7]

Though cattle in the UK are not required to have EID tags, they do have to have a passport, and all movements must be recorded, or the farmer risks losing part of their Basic Payment. A wide range of identification hardware is available; however, most are not approved for official purposes in the UK[8]. Micro chipping and ruminal boluses have been rolled out but are still in development.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), on the other hand, ruled in 2013 that states and tribes can develop identification systems that work for them and their producers. However, livestock moved interstate have to be officially identified and accompanied by an interstate certificate of veterinary inspection or documentation of owner-shipper statements or brand certificates. The USDA accepts the use of brands, tattoos, backtags and ear tags to identify livestock.[9]

Brazil have implemented mandatory traceability and identification rules to control domestic and imported cattle, but it was originally intended to open up the market to export to the EU.[10] The Brazilian System of Identification and Certification of Bovine Bubaline Origin provides certification on the adoption of traceability and management practices, such as individual identification, records and documentation.[11]

Other alternatives include DNA identification, which has the benefit of being permanently present in live and dead animals, meaning it can be accurately used at any stage of the supply chain. However, it is still some way off being available for on-farm use.[12]

With cereal or horticultural crops, tractors and other machinery are now often used for record keeping, with advanced IT systems incorporated into the kit able to collect and transmit data – such as inputs, weather and disease – to farm-based software.

Software such as Farmplan allows farmers to keep track of crop and livestock management for the purpose of record keeping and compliance. This type of software allows farmers to collectively gather all the information recorded and turn it into useful and accessible data, to provide transparency and traceability in the food chain.

A central data gathering system would be required to make use of the collected data, for the Government, farmers and levy bodies. This would allow for the data to be analyzed for a number of purposes.[13] The United Nations are pushing to develop a global system for sharing data and hosted a Global Open Data in Agriculture and Nutrition meeting in New York in 2016. Industry representatives from across the world were in attendance, with the aim to build support among governments, policy makers, international organisations and businesses.

Many factors can impact upon the reliability of traceability systems, meaning that even if one section of the chain operates effectively, other sections can leave gaps in the overall picture. There needs to be collaboration between all parts of the chain, working from unified or translatable systems that operate through standardised legislation.[14] Even in more developed countries, record keeping can be time consuming and a burden for producers.

Cost is often one of the most difficult challenges faced in improving anything, not just traceability. Red tape can be a significant burden to organizations, particularly in developing countries, and where there is little noticeable payback.[15] It is therefore necessary to produce cost-effective technologies that can help farmers accurately make records and transfer data, particularly with increased globalization.[16]

For example, in the UK in 2011, the annual cost of purchasing tags for cattle, sheep and pigs was around £11.2m, with the additional associated labour cost between £5m and £24m a year. Though Government expenditure on traceability is hard to quantify, the minimum cost was estimated to be £23.3m a year. [17]

In the US, food recalls and food borne illnesses accrue a cost of $77bn annually, which includes discarded products, loss of revenue and healthcare costs. This doesn’t include the financial repercussions from the damage caused to businesses’ reputations by food recalls.[18]

Data gathering can often rely upon the manual input of information to computer software, which can lead to human errors. According to the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) in the US, errors occur in 36% of consumer packaged goods orders.

With cereal crops, blending can be an issue, as grain is often placed into bulk shipments which can come from a number of different farms.

Modern agriculture is driven by data and is highly knowledge intensive. Technological innovations are therefore necessary to reduce costs and increase production, while consistently producing top quality, safe and traceable products that meet consumer requirements.[19]




















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