Manitoba tackles tainted foodWritten by Vawn Himmelsbach Wednesday, 17 December 2008 07:36
When tainted spinach resulted in an E. coli outbreak that killed three people in 2006, all spinach was removed from grocery store shelves in North America ”“ because the problem couldn’t be narrowed down to the few farms that were actually contaminated.
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Food safety is a major concern today, but analytical tools have emerged to track food throughout the supply chain, capturing real-time data on inventory levels, expiration dates and product quality. IBM and the Province of Manitoba have tested a new system that digitally traces the journey food takes before it ends up in your shopping cart. The pilot project ”“ which tracked data about product movement, animal history and characteristics, processing history and transportation data ”“ included beef and pork producers, animal feed ingredient producers, feed manufacturers, farmers, processing plants, truckers and a retail grocery chain.
“It was designed to highlight the fact that traceability is not just an abstract concept, it’s something we can do and we have bits and pieces of the traceability chain already built,” says Dr. Wayne Lees, chief veterinary officer for the Province of Manitoba. This includes systems in processing plants and distribution centres. “The real key to a traceability system, though, is linking all of those pieces together, and that’s where it becomes most difficult.” It’s not so much an issue of technology, but building a framework so people can confidently share information.
A group composed of federal, provincial, territorial and industry partners is working on a national agri-food traceability system, the idea being that all food products would eventually come under that umbrella. The Province of Manitoba, however, decided to take the lead several years ago, starting with beef and pork, with future expansion into other areas such as vegetables and grains.
With livestock, it’s an essential component for controlling animal disease outbreaks ”“ which animals have been infected, and on those infected farms, how many animals came or went and where did they go?
“We’ve made some really good steps in the traceability program, but they’re just the first initial steps,” says Lees. Parts of the program are legislated ”“ animal registration systems are now required ”“ but it’s not complete. There is general agreement that these systems will only get wholesale buy-in if they’re mandatory, says Lees, though most players in the food supply chain will voluntarily co-operate. It’s not about punishing people, but guaranteeing quality all the way through the food chain.
IBM selected a global traceability software application from TraceTracker, which allows trading partners to create “food passports” that trace every stage of production, processing and distribution. Eventually, TraceTracker’s Global Traceability Network (GTNet) could be used to provide messaging that will help re-establish and reinforce consumers’ confidence in the food products they’re buying.
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