The Long and Winding Road: Demystifying the Food Supply Chain

Where exactly does your food come from?  With increasingly convoluted global supply chains, it’s hard to determine the twists and turns our last meal took on its journey from transport to table. According to the FDA, there are 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths a year from food-borne illnesses. Health Canada estimates that each year, roughly 4 million people get sick from consuming contaminated food.  In 2012, Canada was forced to recall nearly 2000 beef products, the largest recall in its history, when the meat was found to be contaminated with E. coli. Officials were criticized for taking over 10 days to analyze samples, trace their origin, and issue the recall. The delay precipitated the creation and passage of Bill S-11, new legislation that facilitates better ways to trace food from producer to consumer.

Around the globe, professionals involved with food safety training and food safety certification programs understand the importance of traceability with regard to quality control. New technology is emerging to enable greater transparency in food supply chains. Working with over 16 supply chain partners, Manitoba collaborated with IBM to develop “trace and track” software that allows professionals to gather and share data about any product, at any step in its journey toward consumers. In order to improve food safety and optimize traceability, Norway packages all meat and poultry with RFID chips that allow officials to monitor product conditions from farm to store.

In response to a growing demand for food chain transparency, McDonald’s Australia recently introduced a new app that allows customers to track the origins of their meal in real time. Using image recognition software and a GPS tracking system, the app shows users which farm or supplier provided their favourite burger, fries and shake combo.  Accessible and efficient tracking systems are becoming part and parcel of our daily shopping experience.  In the US, HarvestMark is gaining traction as an easy tracing solution that uses technology most people have on the smartphone. Products bearing the Harvestmark barcode can be scanned with the phone to reveal growing conditions, harvest dates and shipping methods.

From the big business of international food networks, to individuals choosing ingredients for tonight’s dinner, the origins of our food is a growing concern.  Fortunately, the average person need not enrol in a food safety course to understand how best to protect themselves from untraceable food chains! Tighter laws and user-friendly technologies are integrating track and trace into our every-day grocery shopping routines.

Have you ever scanned a product to determine exactly where it’s been?