Ranking of 21 OECD countries reveals how well nations can trace food in times of crisis

The food industry will be expected to do more of these things—putting pictures on labels, putting more information, being clearer about what goes on in farms… because consumers are asking more questions.

Sylvain Charlebois, Professor, University of Guelph’s College of Management and Economics

WINNIPEG, CANADA—Paul Taylor knows food. Between managing two gyms, demonstrating exercises to clients and a demanding training regime, the 30-year-old personal trainer, bodybuilder and powerlifter eats six or seven meals a day.

“If I’m not eating the right foods, my body can’t adapt properly to the type of training I’m doing, my health suffers, my performance suffers and in turn my business suffers,” said the six foot, 210-pound gym owner in Winnipeg, Canada.

Most of his diet includes fresh fruits and vegetables, beef and chicken. It’s that last product thatTaylor thinks almost killed him in October 2006.

“Initially I thought I had the stomach flu so I actually tried to just fight it off,” said Taylor.

But 48 hours after the first symptoms, his family found him drastically ill in his apartment and took him to the hospital, where nurses rehydrated him with bags of intravenous fluid. Doctors told Taylor he was lucky his family found him when they did, and confirmed the source of his agony: Salmonella.

He believes the bacteria came from the skinless, boneless chicken thighs he ate earlier in the day. But it’s impossible to know for sure, because as much as Taylor knows food, he doesn’t always know where it comes from.

Taylor’s not alone. Consumers’ ability to trace the source of foodborne illnesses depends on what country their food comes from and where it ends up.

A soon-to-be-released report by the Global Food Traceability Center in Washington, D.C., reveals a patchwork of rules and regulations governing how easily food can be traced from farm to fork in 21 countries around the world.

Canada is ranked “average” in the report, as are the United States, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and Brazil. European Union countries Sweden and Norway were ranked as “superior,” while China and Russia received an overall ranking of “poor” in the global survey.

Food traceability and transparency can play a key investigative role after the outbreak of a foodborne illness, like salmonella or E. coli. It can help pinpoint exactly where the source of the bacteria began and how far it travelled through the supply chain. A strong traceability system that tracks the events of a product’s lifetime can also help consumers feel greater protection against faulty or misleading labels.

“Industry is responsible,” said Sylvain Charlebois, one of thereport’s authors and a professor at the University of Guelph’s College of Management and Economics in Canada. “Industry should be made accountable to the consumers.”

Since Taylor’s run-in with salmonella, livestock like cattle and poultry have come under mandatory traceability regulations in Canada. But for other sectors, like processed foods, no mandatory regulations force food producers and companies to track food along the supply chain. Some food sectors have implemented voluntary traceability systems such as Canada’s produce industry. But most food products are not easily traced, making it difficult to identify the different stops on their journey.

To assess this process, Charlebois and his co-authors ranked 21 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) based on 10 factors, including their mandatory or voluntary traceability regulations, product labeling, and accessibility of information about different products.

Thirteen Western European countries took the top spots because of mandatory regulations for traceability covering a broad spectrum of food, including meat, seafood and products incorporated into feed for animals.

Combating food fraud

A number of high-profile cases have brought traceability issues to the fore. In 2013, investigators from the International Reporting Project Italy found tomato puree with a “produced in Italy” label had actually been imported from China. The labeling was permitted because water and salt were added to the puree before it was canned in Italy. Olive oil companies are under increasing scrutiny as well, as reports from the U.S., Canada and Europe have revealed some products labeled as “olive oil” are really olive oil mixed with other, lower-grade oils.

Last year, people across Europe ate horsemeat labeled as beef, sparking a massive wave of recalls. Tracing how horsemeat ended up being called beef proved difficult for investigators because of the supply chain’s elaborate web.

“You saw farmers or wholesalers sell a product to distributors or even brokers that weren’t entirely properly labeled,” Charlebois said. “Fraudulent behavior actually occurred before it got to the consumer. In the end, consumers were tricked.”

Western Europe ranks at the top: report

“When it comes to transparency, we can recognize in Europe they seem to be more willing to share data and they seem to really want to connect more with consumers, so that brings them up in the rankings,” Charlebois said.

Middle-of-the-pack countries have room for improvement. According to the report, the U.S. lacks regulations dealing with traceability of any food product. Canada received good marks for livestock traceability, but lacks national regulations for other commodities.

According to the results, China and Russia are failing consumers.

“The reason is that they’re not forthcoming when it comes to looking at food traceability or they’re looking at other kinds of issues in food safety,” Charlebois said.

The report calls on food companies in those countries to share more data with each other in order to track the journey of a product. The report also suggests increasing the use of technology, but Charlebois admits that might be out of the question, due to shrinking profit margins because of low food prices in recent years.

“It’s difficult for the food industry to re-think their food traceability systems,” he said.

Jane Proctor, vice-president of policy and issue management for the Canadian Produce Marketing Association, said the report’s findings show traceability can help in times of crisis, but also can help industry be more profitable.

“There are efficiencies to be gained,” she said. “And what we’re hoping is that industry will leverage those other efficiencies.”

The food industry will be expected to do more of these things—putting pictures on labels, putting more information, being clearer about what goes on in farms… because consumers are asking more questions.

Sylvain Charlebois, Professor, University of Guelph’s College of Management and Economics

“Blind faith”

Back in his gym, Paul Taylor builds his fitness business and pushes his body to new limits. However, his near-death experience with salmonella still lingers in his mind.

“I was always careful with my food and now I’m especially careful with my food,” Taylor said.

He lost confidence in the global food industry and says he puts “blind faith” in the journey his food takes.

“I think that industry is riddled with things we don’t know and things we wouldn’t want to know, but at the same time we do need to know,” he said, adding that he believes the industry needs to be more transparent about its products.

That’s a responsibility the industry must shoulder, according to Charlebois.

“The food industry will be expected to do more of these things—putting pictures on labels, putting more information, being clearer about what goes on in farms,” he said, “because consumers are asking more questions.”

Editor’s Note: A version of this story was published on the CBC on June 24, 2014.


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