Traditionally, food traceability has been practiced on a largely voluntary basis by individual companies, primarily to control recalls of product that has been inadvertently contaminated during manufacture or poisoned by the occasional malicious individual. However, we now face much higher standards, enshrined in new laws in the USA, Europe and elsewhere and new mandates such as McDonald's, the world's largest purveyor of processed meat demanding "full traceability" of all suppliers. Voluntary schemes are starting to go nationwide, such as the Can-Trace scheme for food traceability in Canada. Tracking, tracing and identifying are now overlapping objectives and given schemes often have multiple paybacks as well as unquantifiable objectives based on safety (protecting against undirected dangers) and security (against deliberate attacks - now including organised crime - bioterrorism).
Wal-Mart, Albertson's, Best Buy, Target and other supermarkets have mandated Radio Frequency Identification RFID on all incoming pallets and cases, as have the US Military and European retailers such as Tesco, Carrefour and Metro are bringing it in. They share about 100,000 suppliers, so this is a big initiative and it is aimed at cost reduction and improved customer service but there are improvements to traceability expected as well. And this is only a precursor of item level tagging. Wal-Mart is pioneering this with Type 2 (narcotic) drugs primarily for cost reduction and traceability for recalls etc but the Food and Drug Administration is pushing for item level tagging of all drugs sold in the USA, this being in order to combat increased counterfeiting by knowing the pedigree (provenance) of each individual item. That means where it came from and what has happened to it at every stage -a full reverse audit trail if you will. This is a sign of what will come with food at item level and stores from Maruetsu in Japan to Metro in Germany have been experimenting with just that. Many added benefits accrue such as terminals in the store providing background detail on a tagged product by reading the tag and the elimination of queues at checkout by automating the process with RFID for both scanning and payment.
Traceability has to be more thorough these days. There used to be talk of "From farm to fork" but now it is more a matter of "From growing plant to fork" and "From animal feed and animal medicine to animal to fork". That leads to such new approaches as biometrics of animals including retinal eye scans. There is also a drive to combine functions. For instance, TekVet RFID tags on livestock record time temperature profile, an indicator of health. The equivalent for food takes the form of labels from KSW Microtec Germany and others.
The new technologies of tracking, tracing and identifying are catching on much faster than is commonly realised. The IDTechEx Knowledgebase of case studies of RFID in action is now passing 1600 cases and over 500 are to do with food and livestock tagging. See www.rfidbase.com
. Genetic testing, by various techniques based on DNA, is already being practiced by giants such as the $6 billion Maple Leaf Foods, Canada's largest food processor. For livestock, we have mandatory national RFID tagging from Botswana to Australia with the European Union soon to demand RFID on all four footed livestock and Thailand even considering tagging 400 million chickens yearly in the face of avian flu. Within ten years or so we may see a rise to one billion a year of livestock tagged and, if bird tagging is feasible and economical, that figure could rise to four billion yearly. However, the potential for RFID labelling of food is trillions yearly because these tags can potentially replace both barcodes and anti-theft tags and provide the perfect recall because they give individual ID to every item for the first time. We shall know in fine detail what the customer wants and provide it, with no more empty shelves either - or such is the dream.