Intended to provide information on the origins of a product, its location and the various transformation processes, traceability emerged in the 1990s to finally become established a decade later. Viewed as a necessity, the traceability requirement appeared for the first time in Article 18 of EC Regulation 178/200 in a document from the EU, which was followed in 2004 by others, including the “hygiene package” on foodstuffs. Europe is a leader in the field. The United States waited until January 2011 to follow suit, by passing the Food Safety Modernization Act, establishing a traceability requirement.
“Traceability is an obligation of result, not of means. Each industry organises itself in its own way and uses the appropriate technology. Traceability requires few tools, as what matters is not the technology, but the organisation that meets the goals of traceability. Beware of technology for technology’s sake. Actors must be informed and trained properly”, warns Traçabilititien® Jean-Luc Viruega.
Each operator, in production and distribution, has developed their own system to raise and lower product flow.
There’s no consistency in producers’ practices, such as requests from distributors. The key is the ability to store information and identify it if necessary. Some operators add their own traceability of lots purchased, which allows them to find, for example, the purchase date, the date of arrival on site and the identity of the supplier. And then, if they need more specific information (in case of problems, mainly) they relay the supplier’s traceability information so he can advise them”, said an official from the Prince de Bretagne cooperative. The EAN 13 code therefore provides information on price, weight, but not the lot number.
Tomorrow, the housewife will scan the QR code on a packet of courgettes with her Smartphone, which will take her to the producer’s website (where she will find recipes and all kinds of offers…). Given its capacity, this technology has endless possibilities and could record, for example, environmental labelling.“Products could, for example, record the amount of C02 gases emitted to produce and market the fruit”,says Jean-Luc Viruega.
There is a limit, however. Bar codes and, since the beginning of 2000, RFID chips proliferate on crates and blister packaging. The RFID system is very expensive, and to date is not very developed in the fresh fruit and vegetable sector, whether in production, trading or distribution. Chips appear on the packaging or container but not on products. Cheats are well aware of this. Selling Spanish strawberries labelled Gariguettes du Vaucluse is quite possible and unfortunately does happen.
“Inkjet marking is used on eggs and if tomorrow Brussels decided to impose it on vegetables, everybody would have to do it. This would complicate operations because fruit and vegetables are sorted by category and size, not by plot! noted Jean-Luc Viruega. Today, similar boxes come from different plots. What will happen tomorrow?
Also, to what extent do the 2002 and 2004 regulations not constitute a non-tariff barrier to produce imported from outside the EU? In recent years, Tunisian and Moroccan producers who have had bitter experience of this, have had to develop procedures to meet EU traceability. To avoid accusations of hidden protectionism, Brussels helps North and Central African countries to develop systems of traceability. Maghreb countries are entering a virtuous circle that also benefits local consumption.
Consumers have a growing need to be reassured
For its part, the GS1 recommends only solutions based on international standards endorsed by the ISO or United Nations. GS1 is working on interoperability of enterprise systems and uses a common, international language defined by business within an agreed Framework. The goal? To improve communication of all stakeholders in the sector.
Over the years and the various food crises (Creutzfeldt Jakob Disease and recently, E-Coli linked to a batch of Spanish cucumbers), traceability meets a real consumer need to be reassured about the origin of the products they buy. Also, because of traceability, the Spanish cucumber was quickly exonerated!
(*) TICSAD: Information and Communication Technologies for Sustainable Agriculture, aims to provide farmers with solutions to transform their crop protection practices and improve the profitability of their operations.