The province of Manitoba has been working with IBM to develop and test a new system giving digital traceability to food all the way to shoppers’ grocery carts.
Referred to as a food passport, it is meant to show the public and trading partners that if there is a problem with Canadian food, it can be identified and isolated very quickly.
Susan Wilkinson, IBM Global Business Services traceability solutions executive said farmers can recognize a big value by having the system in place beyond just showing due diligence.
“If you want to prove to the consumer some special attributes of your product, be that organic or hormone free or something like that, you can use the evidence the traceability system provides to substantiate the claim,” she said.
The system is not much different than what most successful Manitoba farmers are already doing. But it provided guidelines as to what records are necessary in order to quickly isolate a problem in the event of a foodborne outbreak or other such problem.
Wilkinson said some of the information would be shared in the event of a contamination of feed or a disease outbreak.
“The sharing of the data would be governed by agreement in that each player in the whole food supply chain from the farmer to the retailer would have to have agreements in place with the government and any other trading partners, that would say this is the information we are willing to share under these specific purposes,” she explained.
Wilkinson thinks farmers won’t really find anything different with these new records.
The biggest problem she saw unfolding was the lack of Internet access and computer savvy for many farmers.
“We know there’s no time in the day for farmers to get on the computer to do anything,” she said. She said the program will address these issues.
“Unless we all agree that it gets put into a computer system and is electronically retrievable, we will continue to have very long timelines for investigation into outbreaks,” she said.
The project was piloted in Manitoba, but the idea is to provide national standards.
In a case where bad feed was distributed, within minutes they would be able to see where the feed was distributed, and the affected farmers would be able to pinpoint which animals received the feed. If the animals have already moved off farm for slaughter, that would be traceable right to the retailer selling the meat.
Used in pork and beef applications, the plan is to develop programs for grain handling as well. “You need to be able to identify the grain by truckload,” she said. “This system is meant to restore confidence of the other countries.”
Global standards would be used for identification of product. Every farm would have an identifying number.
Wilkinson said the beauty of a system that restores this confidence is it helps to keep the borders open.
She said the system works best when more stakeholders sign on, but not putting it into place before everybody signs on would be remiss.
“Many companies around the world are taking the bull by the horns and saying I have an opportunity to get some business benefit to having this information available.”
Ian Wishart, president of Keystone Agricultural Producers said the concept of food traceability is something most farmers would support. The question that comes to mind for most farmers is “exactly who do they expect to pay for this?”
He said he has some concerns about duplication of records as “bits and pieces of this are already out there.”
Processors and producers already have many systems in place and Wishart hopes the system will build on those.
Provincial vet Wayne Lees said Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Initiatives paid $127,040.59 to IBM Canada Ltd. from Livestock Industry Development Assistance for Food Traceability Proof of Concept.
“Food traceability is a benefit on a national basis, so support for future programs would be a topic of discussion between the province, federal government and food industry representatives,” he said.
The province will continue to work on food traceability chains.