By Michelle Jacokes
The Oxford Dictionary defines “traceability” as “the quality of having an origin or course of development that may be found or followed.” For fresh produce, traceability can help in following the movement of that produce through all steps in the agri-food chain, both backward and forward.
The purpose of traceability, in this case, is being able to rapidly identify any issues with a product, whether a contamination event occurs or another factor affects the integrity of that item. If that product can be easily traced, customers can be more readily informed of the products they have sold or consumed. For traceability of food or produce, generally in a larger grocery store setting there is some sort of unique identifier (i.e. you may see a sticker on individual pieces of fruit) that accompanies that produce, or the ‘lot’ of that product.
Throughout the agri-food system, traceability is required by many buyers, and currently it is moving toward becoming federally mandated. Not all farms are required to create some sort of traceability program, and not all buyers require it because it is largely dependent on size of the farm, distance traveled and other variables. Many buyers outside of direct consumers require farms to have it to cover their “bases” and create more transparency in the growth and movement of their product and, in turn, to ensure safety and customer trust.
Traceability can be implemented in various ways dependent on scale. In this case we are looking at traceability programs that are applied to fresh produce farms.
Large farms that distribute across greater distances and have multiple passes in the food chain may have a more complex traceability program that uses computer-based systems. Whereas smaller farms, who have more direct sales, may simplify it to what makes best sense to them — like a printed label, or a sign at the market.
Farms do not need to label each individual piece of produce, but rather can create ‘lot codes’ in which to identify a group of produce.
An example of how a farm may identify a lot according to good agricultural practices is:
Many growers find using the Julian calendar date useful when developing lot numbers. From the lot number, you should be able to identify the following information about the lot:
- Commodity/Produce item
- Farm location where produce was grown
- Field where produce was harvested
- Harvest date
- Harvest crew (can group individuals and identify with a crew name)
- Packinghouse used (if any)
- Packing date (if different than harvest date)
- Packing crew (if different than harvest crew)
Growers can use existing farm and planting maps to establish field numbers to reference in harvest logs that track harvest and packing dates.
A farm may additionally include the city and state of the farm.
Some different methods of traceability may include different paper or electronic systems like:
- QR Codes
- Bar Codes
- Labels or stickers
What does traceability do for a consumer? Say, for example, a bunch of carrots you purchased at the farmers market?
Well, as a customer, you start by knowing what farm that came from, and that farm can likely tell you which field that bunch was harvested from, on what day, and how large or small the harvest was. A farm at minimum must have their farm name and address posted at the market stand to help customers identify where the product they are purchasing is coming from.
All of those things contribute to the traceback of that product, and the unique identifier, like a lot code, helps track that product to its point of harvest and where it goes after the fact. Each farm is unique, and a traceability program varies to what fits best for a farm operation and its practices.
What traceability really does for all parties involved is create an effective tool for clear identification of a product in times when it is needed. Pretty much everything we purchase in a large retail setting has some sort of unique identifier, such as a bar code. It provides us with insight to a product when we need it.
Providing identification to fresh fruits and vegetables can be a bit more complex in developing a traceback system compared to a product that comes off of the shelf in a box. However, the importance of implementation is not any less. Not only can traceability help with health and safety, it also can reduce product waste and economic loss.
The Michigan On-Farm Produce Safety Team will host a series of educational “Winter Tech Talks” January through April. These will highlight different topics that relate to produce safety on a fresh produce farm. These topics will be a “deeper dive” into certain aspects of produce safety as each relates to the FSMA Produce Safety Rule; Good Agricultural Practices; and ways to minimize and implement practices to reduce microbial risks on the farm.
For information on talks and how to register visit https://bit.ly/2XhLOqn. The first talk will be Jan. 20 at 6:30 p.m. and will focus on “Traceability & Components of a Produce Safety Plan” with guest speaker Dr. Jennifer McEntire, United Fresh VP of Food Safety & Technology.