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Food Traceability: How Technology Allows Food and Beverage Businesses to Meet the Challenge

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Food Traceability: How Technology Allows Food and Beverage Businesses to Meet the Challenge

Aug 12, 2021

Jack Payne
Two food manufacturing workers monitor production lines at a factory.

Simply put, food traceability is a major consideration for every business in the industry. Today’s focus on food safety and brand accountability puts the onus on food and beverage organizations like yours to track all materials from the beginning of the supply chain to the end. And innovative solutions to serve this purpose are in high demand as a result.

Thankfully, technologies that make complete traceability a reality have emerged. Food enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems are among the best and most widely used platforms, as they give food and beverage companies the confidence that they can satisfy the demands of consumers and regulatory bodies alike on this front.

That being said, the topic of food traceability is an increasingly complex one and warrants being broken down in greater detail. Here, we’ll start with the basics and then dive deep into why you need to be able to trace everything that moves through your facilities, as well as how that is best accomplished.

What Is Food Traceability?

Food traceability is the practice of tracking all materials used in the production, processing and distribution of food and beverage products. That entails capturing critical granular information at every step along the supply chain, from source to consumer.

The kind of data recorded will vary from ingredient to ingredient and product to product, but for truly airtight traceability, the facts and figures should be comprehensive—that means high-level characteristics, as well as finer details. The list includes, but is not limited to:

  • Country of origin

  • Weight

  • Quantity

  • Lot and serial numbers

  • Expiry dates and shelf life

  • Nutrition statistics

  • Location at all critical tracking points (CTPs)

  • Shipping methods

  • Surfaces with which materials came into contact

  • Employees who handled the materials

  • Allergen information

  • And more…

It’s an extensive, if not exhaustive, collection of information, but it’s required for truly complete traceability. And in the end, that’s what businesses like yours need to succeed in a competitive, dynamic food and beverage marketplace.

Why Is Traceability Important in Food?

The demand for food traceability primarily is driven by two different but equally important groups: consumers and regulatory bodies. Both expect transparency and dependability when it comes to food and beverage products, and they both must be satisfied.

After all, the former group will largely determine how financially successful your company is, while the latter carries the authority of the government and can altogether halt your operations should violations be identified. Both are motivated primarily by the need for safety, especially on the front of properly identifying and labeling allergens that present health risks to vulnerable individuals.

Still, there are other concerns also at play:

  • Sprawling supply chains: The increasingly global nature of food and beverage supply chains means that there are more stops along the way, and thus more opportunities for mishaps and contamination.

  • Sustainability: Responsible sourcing of materials is a subject of scrutiny from both consumers and regulatory agencies, so effectively capturing the origin of all ingredients is vital.

  • Brand reputation: To be known as a business that clearly presents the facts to customers in understandable and clear fashion is a major competitive advantage and encourages loyalty.

  • Compliance: Violations of traceability regulations can result in major consequences for those found not in compliance—these can range from penalties and fines to even worse outcomes.

  • Emergency preparedness: In the case of a product withdrawal or recall, time is of the essence. It’s only with total traceability of all materials that the necessary information will be on-hand to prevent contamination issues from escalating.

Even more reasons exist, but this handful alone should be enough to convince you of the necessity for food traceability.

What Regulations and Agencies are Relevant?

When it comes to food traceability regulations, several sets of standards are considered universal. The following organizations and regulatory bodies have established guidance for traceability that all food and beverage businesses will be better off for taking into account:

  • Global Food Safety Initiative (GSFI): Originally founded in 2000 as one of the first international food safety bodies, GSFI remains a leader in setting standards and ensuring compliance around the world.

  • Safe Quality Food Institute (SQFI): A division of FMI, the Food Industry Association, this body grants the important SQF certification, which attests to a food and beverage organization’s commitment to a culture of food safety.

  • Foundation FSSC and Food Safety System Certification 22000 (FSSC 22000): With FSSC 22000, Foundation FSSC seeks to define the risks and hazards present in food and beverage manufacturing operations with their regulations. They also provide sector-specific Pre-Requisite Programs (PRPs).

  • BRC Global Standards (BRCGS): These standards address food safety, storage, distribution and packaging materials, and they are held in high regard in more than 130 countries. The accompanying certification can be granted by any of a number of different auditing organizations.

  • GS1 Global Traceability Standards: This is the most widely used guidance specific to traceability, with more than 1.5 million businesses worldwide implementing these standards in their processes.

  • Current Good Manufacturing Processes (cGMP): Originally established by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), cGMP standards are now recognized internationally as best practices for minimizing risks involved in the production, processing and packaging of food and beverages (as well as drugs and medical services).

Depending upon where your facilities are located, your business will need to understand and comply with certain country- and region-specific requirements. In the U.S., the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) passed in 2011 put in place regulations that are necessary for compliance, and the addition of Section 204 planned for later this year will provide additional guidance on traceability.

Meanwhile, the UK’s main sources of guidance for food traceability come from the Food Safety Act of 1990, which was updated in 1999 to establish the Food Standards Agency—bolstering the country’s approach to protecting public health. And in greater Europe, the EU established its General Food Law Regulation in 2002, as well as the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) to enforce the standards therein.

What Are the Best Practices for Food Traceability?

Seeing as how every food and beverage company differs in scale and nature, it would be impossible to compile a truly complete list of best practices for food traceability. However, there are a number of measures that all organizations should put in place in order to create a foundation for a culture of food safety.

The following are some of the essential best practices:

  • Complete, granular data capture: The importance of this practice was stressed previously, but it bears repeating. Constantly collecting and updating critical information pertaining to your materials is the basis for sound food traceability. Besides the facts and figures mentioned earlier, don’t forget the importance of documentation and historical change records, as these can be crucial in case of an audit.

  • Quality control: Your processes should include built-in checks to assess the important quality characteristics of your materials. Note that this isn’t only important for finished products that are set to be shipped; it’s vital that your readings and measurements are collected and updated from the time of receipt so that changes and deviations can be flagged as soon as they arise.

  • Preventative maintenance: There’s simply no excuse for equipment malfunctions, especially not if they have the potential to impact the safety of your products. Don’t skimp in these efforts in an attempt to maximize uptime. It could come back to bite you in the end should you face a sudden unexpected stoppage due to equipment failure, more expensive repairs down the road or even a total equipment replacement resulting from neglected maintenance.

  • First-expiry, first-out (FEFO) inventory picking: It’s vital to approach picking using these principals not only to prevent expired materials being used in your products, but also to get the most out of the ingredients you purchased. If you can ensure that you’re always following this method of inventory management, you’ll save money and reduce waste while also doing your part to maintain excellent food safety standards.

  • Multi-layer tracking: Simply maintaining information at the item level isn’t enough; you need to be able to track by lot, serial number, container and shift. All could become relevant in the event of contamination, as you’ll need to identify all possible sources, as well as a comprehensive list of other materials or lines that might be affected.

  • Labeling: We’ll dive into the best ways to convey relevant data with your material and product labels shortly, but this must be noted here as it is all too often that under-labeled and incorrectly labeled items result in food safety emergencies.

Obviously, it would be quite the ask to collect so much information, perform all necessary checks, schedule regular maintenance and implement strict inventory picking and labeling standards if you had to rely on manual processes and human memory alone. Luckily, food and beverage ERP solutions were designed to help businesses like yours accomplish it all with less effort and greater accuracy.

How Can Technology Enhance Food Traceability Practices?

Paper-based record keeping is a thing of the past, and isolated spreadsheets created in Microsoft Excel won’t cut it either. Given the complex nature of food traceability and the myriad factors at play, only advanced technological systems can provide total assurance that your efforts are effective in keeping your products safe and your operations compliant.

ERP for food and beverage businesses really can do it all, as the best among them are designed to act as cross-functional, integrated systems that holistically transform organizations from the factory floor to the board room. Here are some key ways in which food ERPs make traceability more manageable and will save your staff time, frustration and worry while guaranteeing excellent safety standards:

  • Automatic granular data collection: By intelligently scheduling all information capture and quality control checks ahead of time, ERP platforms can help ensure that you never miss these critical steps in your day-to-day operations. This eliminates the risk of human error, gives you confidence that all facts and figures in the system are up-to-date and covers multiple layers of tracking at once.

  • Integration with smart sensors and scales: To facilitate this automatic capture of material and product data, ERP facilitate integrations with Internet of Things (IoT) and other connected smart devices to immediately import new readings and update your database. Combined with automatic scheduling, this creates an uncompromisingly consistent and accurate approach to this critical step.

  • Robust inventory management: The best ERP solutions, like Aptean Food & Beverage ERP, are designed with best practices in mind and thus include features for FEFO inventory picking, as well as functions for optimizing stock levels and implementing automatic re-ordering. You’ll always know exactly what you have on-hand with a food and beverage ERP in place.

  • Integration with barcode and QR code scanners: Barcodes and QR codes are the best ways to capture a large amount of data on ingredient and product labels, and food ERP systems facilitate the use of these technologies by integrating with the appropriate scanners. This too can be automated so that everything is scanned at every CTP and your database updates in real time.

  • Vendor and purchaser contact and contract management: As stated before, food traceability isn’t just about tracking what’s inside your facilities—you need all pertinent information from one end of the supply chain to the other. ERP platforms’ ability to collect and maintain the vital information for your vendors and suppliers means you’re always in sync with where your materials came from and where they’re headed.

  • Intelligent automatic maintenance scheduling: Food and beverage ERP have the ability to intelligently schedule your periods of downtime for maintenance to ensure that you lose minimal production time. That way, you don’t have to compromise on either safety or efficiency.

Technology is always moving fast, and ERP systems are evolving along with it—for example, many now leverage the blockchain to maintain secure traceability information across organizations. Food and beverage businesses around the world that want to compete in the markets of the future are undertaking digital transformations with food ERP software as their foundations.

Partnering with a Pioneer

When it comes to implementing an ERP system—whether that’s to fulfill your food traceability requirements or to access a range of other benefits—the partner you choose is just as vital to your success as the software.

Aptean’s team has decades of combined experience with the food and beverage industry, so they have a deep understanding of the challenges that complete food traceability poses for companies of all sizes. As a result, extensive knowledge of best practices and regulations informed the design of Aptean's food ERP, uniquely positioning it as a premium offering in the space.

What’s more, our solutions are built on Microsoft Dynamics 365, affording them immediate familiarity to anyone who has used any of Microsoft’s vast suite of apps and software. If your business is implementing a fully integrated system like an ERP for the first time, that’s a huge advantage for gaining widespread buy-in and training employees to leverage the system to its fullest.

Want to know more about how Aptean can streamline and modernize your approach to traceability and give you the complete visibility and information necessary for the fast-moving food and beverage space? Contact us today.

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