Enhancing food chain traceability
Products are sold on trust. Trust that the food or beverage is what it says it is. Historically, this trust was built face-to-face, as shoppers bought their bread directly from the baker, their milk directly from the milkman, and so on. However, this is no longer the case today for the majority of consumers. The average supermarket carries over 33,000 items that have travelled 2,400 km, if not more. Even the most basic of products can involve thousands of suppliers from all around the world. With this lack of connection to the food producers, consumers are asking for visibility of the journey their food has taken to get to their table.
Trust requires transparency and certainty. For food, transparency and certainty in where the foods we are buying are grown, harvested and processed becomes complex, particularly as the food supply becomes globalised. Add to the mix recurring scandals — ranging from accidental tainting, right through to those cases of intentional food fraud — and it is no wonder that consumer trust in the food supply chain is eroding. This mistrust is not misplaced as evidence does show that consumers today are at an increased risk of buying lower-quality food than what they paid for, or worse, eating food with unsafe ingredients or undeclared allergens. As a result, consumers are increasingly demanding transparency from farm to fork.
In a global food chain, transparency can only be achieved through effective traceability systems. Traceability is the ability to track food products through each of the stages of production, processing and distribution. More and more, this is being done through the use of electronic tracking systems. There is a wide range of platforms available, each with varying capabilities to capture and manage the unique data that arises from each stage of a product’s journey.
“We are seeing businesses doing ground-breaking things with leveraging data and integrating blockchain technologies to achieve transparency and traceability. We are seeing businesses wanting to provide real-time evidence around the origins and safety of food in the modern digital marketplaces that consumers are now moving in,” said FIAL General Manager of Innovation, Barry McGookin. Importantly, traceability capability is also valuable when things go wrong. When a product has to be recalled for consumer safety, having a good traceability system is key to rapid response as it allows visibility of where products are in the supply system. That transparency can go a long way in minimising exposure of the public to any risk.
Innovative producers are using traceability software technologies in combination with on-pack scanning options. This allows visibility, via consumers’ smartphones, of the full journey of a product from farm to shelf. This level of detail, previously thought to be unnecessary, represents a major shift in consumer buying behaviour. Those businesses that embrace it can differentiate themselves.
Implementing traceability systems can be a costly exercise but the incentive is there. Albeit a relatively new area of research, evidence suggests that consumers are willing to pay more, and even change their buying habits for companies that are transparent. Those businesses that do transparency right can potentially benefit from boosted profits. The sole deciding factors when making food purchases are no longer price, taste and convenience. One of the overarching value drivers is now transparency. This presents an alternative route for honest producers to regain market share from fraudulent yet low-cost products.
“The number of enquiries related to traceability we are getting from industry is absolutely increasing and is one of the hottest topics in our industry right now,” said McGookin.
However, traceability is only one part of the transparency picture. Consumers need to also have confidence in the credence claims products are making. Australian-grown and made products already benefit from a reputation for being clean, green and safe. This has helped our products gain a strong foothold in dynamic international markets where consumers are seeking healthy, nutritious foods. This positioning does demand the provenance, or origin, of a product can be backed up with proof if needed. Unfortunately, the higher the value or demand of a product, the more at-risk it is of counterfeiting. Labels such as ‘organic’ and ‘free-range’ can be used fraudulently; processed and mixed products can be tainted with cheaper substances; liquids can be diluted. Only scientific testing can verify that the beef is in fact from King Island, or the honey is Manuka. Therefore, an opportunity exists for food producers to maintain consumer trust in their products by incorporating the results from forensic testing into the data they are capturing and making available to verify the provenance of their product.
The expectation by consumers for traceability is fast-moving. Companies may not have the time or resources to allow them to capitalise on the opportunity. FIAL can assist by connecting companies with appropriate specialists through the Food Matrix.
“Traceability is driving major changes in our industry. While certainly a challenge, it is a massive opportunity for businesses to harness digital technologies in exciting new ways. If implementing a traceability system is a challenge for your business, we urge you to utilise our Food Matrix and connect with a qualified expert to assist you in addressing this,” said McGookin.
FIAL is an industry growth centre committed to growing the share of Australian food in the global market place. The Food Matrix is a web-based collaborative portal, connecting food and agribusinesses with qualified experts to address an innovation challenge facing their business.
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