You could call it traceability with a capital T.
It’s taking various forms, but the notion of tracking ingredients from field to fork is sweeping through the food system thanks to a combination of new technology and marketplace pressures.
The effects are rippling all the way back to the farm helping producers capture value through niche marketing while assuring consumers they are getting what they paid for.
VG Meats, a specialty beef operation run by the Van Groningen family of Simcoe, Ont., is working on a project to detect the origin of beef through product fingerprinting — hoping it can give operations like theirs a competitive edge.
Cory Van Groningen said the family had incorporated the ability to trace product into its processing plant expansion in 2011, but that didn’t help them figure out what the competition was up to in the market.
While they knew their own costs to raise, process and deliver beef into their markets, they were confronted a few years ago with competitors selling meat with the same claims for $3 less per pound than they charged.
“That created some righteous anger in us and we wanted to figure it out,” said Cory Van Groningen.
Why it matters: The push for greater traceability is coming from retailers looking for accountability, but also from farmers fighting food fraud.
The technology is available to trace agriculture products. Data entered manually or automatically (through scanners of bar codes, tags or chips) at the farm can be flowed into databases that can then follow other bar-coded products through to retail stores.
Advocates of blockchain — the technology that allows greater security, encryption and transparency of data — make the case for greater transparency through the food system, with easier, automated, traceability.
Grain Discovery, an Ontario-based company that uses blockchain to “focus on the pain points in the global commodity chain” worked with Beechwood Elevators near Ailsa Craig, Ont., to trace its organic soybeans from seed to end market.
You can view the journey at id.graindiscovery.com. At the end, there’s even a place to tip producers like you would a waiter in the restaurant.
Traceability in organics
The system records the bin number where the crop was stored at Beechwood Elevators, as well as the protein, oil and moisture levels. The system is tracked with the use of QR codes scanned by various users at various points in the production system.
Ken Knott, of Grain Discovery, spoke at the recent Organic Council of Ontario (OCO) annual meeting and said that all leafy greens sold by Walmart will need to be on a blockchain-enabled traceability system by autumn and all organic products, berries and fruit will have to be on the system by next year.
Traceability was a major focus of the OCO meeting because there have been issues with fraud in organics and the system often requires some sort of proof of origin from farmers.
There are some examples where traceability is providing whole-supply chain transparency and providing a value-added opportunity.
Thorsten Arnold, from the Grey Bruce Centre for Agroecology, also told the Organic Council of Ontario meeting about a traceability system used in Germany.
The organic sector in Germany wanted to create an online market for its products, because, Arnold says, private labels are more trusted there than government certification. The organic producers wanted to be able to promote that their products go well beyond the minimum required by government standards.
It wanted to put a face to organics in Germany and so Bio-mit-Gesicht was created. It can be found at bio-mit-gesicht.de. The site started with 400 products, but now tracks — and promotes — several thousand products, with detailed information from several databases flowing into the site.
“They were all collecting the data until someone said, let’s create a consumer portal too,” said Arnold.
The challenge was verifying the data and the resulting liability if something was wrong. The IT professionals doing the work didn’t want to be liable if there was a mis-labelled allergen and someone ended up ill. As a result, only very defined people for each product can make changes to the listings.
The users also don’t share any of their sales data — any aggregation of sales data was a non-starter, said Arnold. So, the Bio-mit-Gesicht site provided traceability, but helps maintain some of the privacy that concerns farmers.
Tracking beef in Ontario
The Beef Farmers of Ontario (BFO) pilot project aims to create more assurance for consumers about the origin of the products, similar the Bio-mit-Gesicht site.
However, as a commodity, the approach for beef is different, with the goal of reducing food fraud through an origin-of-product traceability system that uses scientific markers to provide the proof, versus a database authentication system.
Van Groningen says he’s learned that few people worry about being caught committing food fraud and that some believe consumers won’t know the difference.
However, one such case that blows up in the public sphere can cause lasting damage to a sector.
BFO looked around the world and turned to Oritain, a New Zealand company that uses stable isotope ratios and chemical analysis to trace several items relating to a product. In this case, BFO and Oritain are working to track product origin — meaning they will be able to see whether the product originated in Ontario, and where in Ontario.
Kate Linteman, an Oritain representative, says they can look at eggs from two different egg-laying operations within a few kilometres of each other and tell which is free-run and which is not.
The project is currently in a testing phase and BFO put out a call for 100 samples from across the province of one-inch pieces of beef weighing from 150 to 200 grams.
The goal is to add to the database of information, in addition to the 200 pieces of beef sampled last year.
The next step is to test the database with actual beef at the retail level, says LeaAnne Wuermli, manager of communications and marketing with BFO. That will tell them how much of a problem there actually is with mislabeled beef products.
Many of the cattle fed in Ontario are born elsewhere in the country and shipped to the province for finishing. That isn’t an issue, as the test can tell by the time they’re finished where they’ve been living and if they’ve been eating local feed.
“It’s an interesting insight seeing who doesn’t want this kind of technology available in the marketplace,” says Van Groningen. “They have hollow excuses for why they do not want it.”