“I don’t see it being asked for where it’s not required.”
– DAVID WI LKES, CANADIAN COUNCIL OF GROCERY DISTRIBUTORS
The need for full traceability systems to track food from the store back to the farm may not be as urgent as generally thought, according to a retail food industry official.
Consumers are certainly concerned about food safety. But there’s no huge public demand from Canadians for a system to track food all the way from the farm gate to the dinner plate, said David Wilkes, a senior vice-president with the Canadian Council of Grocery Distributors.
“I don’t see it being asked for where it’s not required,” Wilkes said last week during a break in a national food traceability conference in Winnipeg.
Some countries employ technologies in grocery stores which enable shoppers to identify the very farm from which a steak in the meat counter originated.
But Canadians are more concerned that their food is safe than knowing about precisely where it came from, Wilkes said.
Traceability by itself does not enhance food safety. And current technology is generally adequate to identify the origin of products when food recalls occur, he said in his presentation to the Trace R&D 2009 conference.
One food traceability innovation is the radio frequency identification (RFID) tag. RFID, which is becoming common in Europe, is seen as a way to aid product recalls and track health issues while providing retailers and manufacturers with cost savings.
RFID enables retailers to trace goods back to individual lots rather than having to recall a whole product line.
But Wilkes said a 2007 pilot project among his members found little difference between RFID and UPC, a machine-readable bar code on packaged goods.
As a result, there’s “no burning platform” among Canadian retailers to use RFID for food traceability, he said.
For RFID to become commonplace, all retailers would have to use it and there’s not enough demand to justify it right now, said Wilkes.
Leonard Penner, president of Cargill Limited, said traceability must add value if food processors are to use it.
Consumers can be willing to pay a premium for special food traits, such as organic or local. This adds value to food products and makes it worthwhile for processors to invest in systems to segregate them, Penner said.
Right now the demand for specific traits is low – less than one per cent of total sales, he said.
But there are exceptions, he added. A rising demand for trans fat-free cooking oil requires an identity preserved (IP) system for growing oilseeds. Some three million acres of canola in Western Canada are produced through a closed-loop system to guarantee the integrity of the product, Penner said.
Also, Warburton, a large U. K. baker, buys specific varieties and qualities of Canada Western Red Spr ing wheat through an IP program.
The June 2-3 conference assembled representatives from industry, government and academia to articulate a national traceability research and development strategy.
Speakers agreed food and livestock traceability is essential to ensuring food safety and animal health.
“Traceability is not an option. It’s an expectation,” said Allan Preston, a Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Initiatives assistant deputy minister. “The traceability train has left the station.”
Traceability in Canada took a big leap forward in 2006 when agriculture ministers mandated a national animal food traceability system.
Traceability involves identifying animals or products, following their movements and identifying their departures and destinations.
Regulated animal identification programs currently exist for beef cattle, dairy cattle, bison and sheep.
Animals must carry a registered ID tag before leaving their farm of origin. This enables authorities to trace back animals in case of a disease outbreak or food safety emergency.
But while livestock traceability from the farm to the processor is becoming compulsory, the system does not extend that traceability from the processor through to the store. [email protected]