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15 TRACEABILITY (Marco Frederiksen/Lone Gram)

An important aspect of quality and safety assurance is to be able to trace products, ingredients, suppliers, retailer, processing operations or storage procedures through the food production chain. This is especially relevant when failures occur. The term "traceability" has been introduced to describe systems in which information about a particular attribute of a food product is systematically recorded from creation through marketing (Golan et al., 2002). For instance if a particular batch of cold-smoked fish has caused an outbreak of listeriosis, authorities will want to trace the product in question to the producer to establish re-call procedures. Similarly, the producer will want to determine if contamination with L. monocytogenes occurred in the plant and/or if temperature abuse occurred during distribution or during storage at the retailer or at the consumer. One may regard an epidemiological investigation as part of a traceability study, e.g. determining the sources of an agent involved in an outbreak of food-borne disease.

Traceability systems have been used for many years in several other sectors such as the aviation, automobile and pharmaceutical industry. As the food chain has lengthened from local production, processing and consumption to more global commercial opportunities, the need to transfer information related to production and public health and the complexity of these transfer vehicles have expanded (McKean, 2001). With the increase in complexity, the consumer wishes to know the origin (species, place, condition of rearing or catch.....), the transformations and the distribution of their food products (Pascal and Mahé, 2001).

Quantitative risk assessments typically aim at covering the whole "farm-to-fork" chain and at any point in time, one must therefore be able to trace an event or a product. ISO 9000 (ISO, 2000) defines traceability as the ability to trace the history, application or location of that which is under consideration. When considering a product, traceability can relate to

In general the term "trace" is used when the history of product origin is searched and the term "track" is used for searching its history after delivery. Moe (1998) described the terms used in traceability studies as

Interest in traceability in food processing has been increasing in recent years, primarily because of the different crisis in the food sector such as the mad cow disease (BSE) in 1996 in the UK and the dioxin contamination in Belgium in 1999. Authorities have focused on traceability to assure consumer safety to be able to re-call defective/hazardous products and to identify the source of the problem.

Also, traceability may be advantageous within a company allowing different raw materials to be directed to production of different categories of product - and subsequently allowing the company to determine if yield, quality, or safety of a particular category was related to a particular raw material - or a particular ingredient. Since traceability systems basically are record-keeping systems, these are in some form required for a HACCP system to be implemented. However, the record keeping step of the HACCP system aims at documenting that the system is under control, that corrective actions are taken when pre-defined critical limits are exceeded, and that re-call of unsafe products is undertaken when required (Caporale et al., 2001). A fully implemented traceability system is broader and covers also a range of aspects not related to safety.

Finally, implementation of traceability systems, although costly to implement, can also be an economic benefit to the producer. The whole chain from vessel to retailer can be managed in a more effective way, when the traceable information is used actively to enhance mutual trust and cooperation between steps in the chain. Significantly less time (and money) can be spent on quality checks and storage, and when recalls are to be carried out traceability is an insurance that the company limits the loss, and protect its brand on the market (Frederiksen, 2002).

15.1 Internal versus external (chain) traceability

The widespread acceptance of hazard analysis and critical control point (HACCP) systems for safety management has increased the need for product chain information throughout the chain (McKean, 2001). Many food (fish) processing companies already have effective internal traceability systems as part of their HACCP based quality assurance systems. In many cases, however, traceability is lost before and after the company deals with the raw materials and the final products. Much effort is spent on quality and safety grading of in-coming raw material. This effort can be minimised if the external traceability, the so-called chain traceability, and the attached information on quality is established. The traceable information must be reliable and this is substantiated by open access from other chain members to audit the quality assurance systems in the chain. Chain traceability is the key to cooperation and mutual trust between independent companies in a chain. More developed industries as for instance the automotive industry focus on auditing their sub-suppliers quality assurance systems today and makes less inspection of incoming products and the same already happens in some food industries.

15.2 Traceability systems

Traceability in its simplest form is in the form of a paper trail. This implies that every relevant piece of information is written on paper that follows the raw material through the processing line to retail. This method can be used for products of high value that are only produced in small quantities, but for basic commodity fish products the costs are too high for manual tracking (Frederiksen and Bremner, 2001). Despite the costs, analysis of three different fish chains in Denmark, Iceland and Norway (fresh whole fish, frozen fish and fresh farmed salmon) have shown that the paper-based systems (faxes, notes, postal letters) are widely used (Palsson et al., 2000).

With the explosive development in electronic data analysis, traceability systems based on information technology must be developed (Frederiksen et al., 2002). Several e-business companies produce software allowing integration of financial and production data in one program package, and most of these have traceability capabilities components implemented (e.g. i2 technologies Inc., Dallas, USA; SAP AG, Walldorf, Germany). However, such systems are typically too costly for the small business units in the fish industry. In an EU concerted action project (Tracefish) - an open and voluntary industry standard for how traceability may be implemented electronically is now being developed (Tracefish, 2002). The work will be transferred to a CEN (Comité Européen Normalisation) standard in early 2003.

The EDIFACT (electronic data interchange for administration, commerce and transport) standard is currently the standard most used for transferring data between steps in the chain. Transfer costs are high and the standard is mostly used by supermarkets at the retail end of the chain. Clearly the Internet is the future as transfer medium and XML (extensible mark-up language) is the new Internet standard allowing transfer of information in a readable, easy, and cheap way (W3C, 2002).

15.3 Labelling products

The minimum requirement for traceability is that each traceable unit has been uniquely labelled to allow identification. The most common labelling method is to label products with barcodes of which the EAN-13 and UCC-12 codes (European Article Number and Uniform Code Council) are the most used. However, these codes, which can be read by retail units, do not allow inclusion of a unique identifier, which is crucial for traceability. Other bar codes (EAN/UCC-128) include the identifier but cannot be read by the retail bar code scanner.

The newest development is the use of RFID (radio frequency identification) tags, but the price is too high to justify their use in the consumer end of the chain. However it is today used for some reusable fish tubs and as internal traceability keeper in the meat industry (Rowan, 2002). The advantage of these tags is that they are fast and easy to read. It must be anticipated that the price of the RFID tags will decrease to a level allowing them to be introduced more widely in the food chain.

15.4 Fresh fish quality traceability

Traceability is important in the fresh fish chain where it may allow tracing of fish from tropical reef waters (potentially containing marine toxins) or tracing of fish from waters polluted with e.g. heavy metals. However, the most important issue in fresh fish trading is the assurance of freshness. Freshness is - for all species - almost exclusively a function of time and temperature. In principle, each fish should be continuously monitored with a time-temperature recording device; however, this is not technically or economically feasible. Therefore these two aspects are dealt with separately. In a well-functioning distribution chain where each step can be relied upon in terms of temperature control, the quality traceability can be implemented by a time recording. Clearly, spot checks of quality must be carried out using standardised fresh fish quality inspection methods such as the Quality Index Method (QIM) (Bremner, 1985; Jónsdóttir et al., 1991).

A traceability system has been developed for fresh fish supply chains in the Danish domestic market and initial studies determined that temperature could be appropriately controlled in this particular chain (Figure 15.1, Frederiksen et al., 2002).

Figure 15.1 Time-temperature measurements of two fish in two different boxes (positions) trough the whole chain from vessel to retailer (modified from Frederiksen et al., 2002).

Internet technology (XML) has been used to transfer data from five steps in the chain from fisherman to retailer (Figure 15.2).

Figure 15.2 The complete test chain and the equipment installed in each step of the chain. Modified from Frederiksen et al. (2002).

Fish are sorted on-board according to species and iced in boxes. Each box is labelled with information on fish species, catch date, vessel name/number, and a unique box number, readable as ordinary numbers and in the form of a barcode. The information is registered in a computer onboard the vessel, and the data are transmitted via a mobile phone to a computer at the next step in the chain, the collector. The collector receives all information from the vessel before it enters the harbour. At the collector, each species is sorted according to size, keeping fish from each catch date separate (the traceable unit is fish from the same vessel with the same catch date). The fish is ice-packed in boxes, with new labels attached, and information about collector name, fish size/weight and a new box number registered at the computer adding this new information to the database.

The boxes were distributed through a wholesaler and further on to a retailer and same procedures were used in all steps to retrieve and add new information to existing product data. At the wholesaler information on wholesaler name, new fish weight and new box number was added. At the retailer information on retailer name, new fish weight, process type and customer number was added.

All information was available at the retailer step. An example on a possible customer label is shown in Figure 15.3.

Retailer name
This Cod size 3 was caught June 30 2002 by the vessel: 'AB123'

Filleted weight: 600 g
Internet number: 1234567

Bar-code: EAN/UCC 128 (01)(11)(21)

(01)057 12345 00001 4(11)010615(21)00001

Figure 15.3 An example of a possible customer label. Modified from Frederiksen et al. (2002).

15.5 EU legislation on traceability of fish and fish products

There is a great international awareness with respect to the need for traceability. Recent international working documents, e.g., The European White Paper on Food Safety (EC, 2000) and the Bangkok Declaration and Strategy on Aquaculture Development (NACA/FAO, 2000), both include statements encouraging the development of traceability to be applied throughout the supply chain.

The general EU principles and requirements of food law including traceability definition and requirements are contained in EU commission regulations 178/2002 (EC, 2002). The present legislation for traceability of fish and fish products is described in EU council regulation 104/2000 (EC, 2000a) and commission regulation 2065/2001 (EC, 2001) that has been in action since January 2002. This regulation states that at the point of consumer purchase, the following aspects should be documented

These are the first implemented demands for traceability for fish products in the EU system and more demands will follow in the years to come. For instance, the catch area demand is very broad and currently only requires a distinction between fish from the whole North Sea and the Baltic Sea for catches from the North of Europe. This has far reaching consequences if, for example, pollution is detected in a small sea area in the North Sea, then all fish caught from the North Sea must be recalled.

Recently, the European Union proposed government-mandated traceability for genetically engineered crops and foods to help distinguish them from their conventional counterparts (Golan et al., 2002).


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EC (European Commission) 2000a. Commission Regulation (EC) No 104/2000 of 17 December 1999 on the common organization of the markets in fishery and aquaculture products. Official Journal of the European Communities No. L 17, 21.01.2000, 22-52.

EC (European Commission) 2001. Commission Regulation 2065/2001 22 October 2001 laying down detailed rules for the application of Council Regulation (EC) no 104/2000 as regards informing consumers about fishery and aquaculture products. Official Journal of the European Communities No. L 278, 23.10.2001, 6-8.

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W3C 2001. The World Wide Web Consortium consists of more than 500 organizations. The current work and the latest version of XML and SOAP are available from:

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