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Manitoba tackles tainted food

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.


December 17, 2008
By Vawn Himmelsbach

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Other recent scares, such as the Listeria outbreak and recalls of beef and pork in Ireland due to suspected contamination of the animal feed illustrate the necessity of tracing food through the chain from farm to fork.

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.


In a 2007 survey of more than 1,600 consumers, IBM found that nearly 70 per cent expressed a low overall level of trust in the claims that branded food products make about their environmental impact and health benefits. Almost half of consumers were concerned about safety.

There are a lot of questions around who would own this system and who would have the right to access the data, says Susan Wilkinson, an executive consultant with IBM Global Business Services. To make this work, there would have to be agreements in place between the owners of the data and any of the other companies or governments who would want to access that data.

“The safety and security of that information is critical,” she says. “It’s a huge issue because many of the participants don’t really understand at this point in time what information they would have to share, so they’re naturally concerned.”

The traceability system, however, uses a distributed architecture, which means each company collects and stores its own data, except when it’s necessary to share. The software makes it possible to query the network and return information only about the product in question. “This is not about creating a huge database in the sky where every company has to send a message any time they ship anything,” she says.

The food supply chain has become global in nature, and the products on our grocery store shelves have ingredients that were sourced from many different countries ”“ cattle, for example, might go back and forth across the border to get fattened up or slaughtered.

“We need to have better track of this for foreign animal disease,” says Wilkinson. It’s important, too, that suppliers understand where all their ingredients come from. “That sounds simple, but it isn’t, because very often food processors buy ingredients from companies who’ve already processed the ingredients, and therefore the supplier may have suppliers.”

TraceTracker is working with governments around the world, particularly in Asia where they’re focusing on the export of food to Europe, which has much more stringent requirements for documentation. In Canada, the next step is to open up and share information with trading partners ”“ and taking that step is not an easy thing for many companies to do, says Helge Kittelsen, CEO of TraceTracker, since they’re concerned that they’ll lose control of their information.

However, everyone pretty much agrees that something must be done. The many tainted food scandals that made headlines this year have not only heightened consumer awareness of the issue, but also put pressure on companies and governments to do things differently. In China, for example, the government is now taking action to crack down on some of these bad practices.

“You see that government action comes as a result of shortcomings in how some of these companies do business,” says Kittelsen. “We need to make sure as an industry we can exchange information more quickly, so we can diagnose a problem if there’s a recall.” Ultimately, this could lead to other benefits. “We are starting to look at ways companies are motivated to share information ”“ you can run a more efficient operation and have better quality products.”


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