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Traceability Falls Short At Distributor Level

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, August 30, 2007

In the wake of the Metz Fresh recall, one thing that has become obvious is that traceability is breaking down. The problem is not growers and packers and processors as we have all been focusing on; it is local distributors and retail distribution centers.

Look at what happens in foodservice:

As an example, a distributor might carry one brand of Spring Mix, perhaps that of a big buying group. It may be packed by two separate processors. But the distributor will only point to one slot for Spring Mix. So both producers get put in the same slot — the packer is identified on the outside of the carton, but the distributors don’t capture this information — and for that matter, if they filled in or did a buy outside their normal distribution system with another brand, the fill-in item would also get put in the same slot.

Because the distributors don’t have true traceability, even though their vendor can tell them they received XX boxes from Packer #1 on XX date, it’s gotten blended in with the other product in the same slot. Essentially it assumes a generic identity, and for this reason, all Spring Mix shipped after the questionable date would be recalled. So it’s not just the 100 boxes they received from a packer having an incident, the recall is much larger.

We need a system to track product all the way through, much like a FedEx package.

The big foodservice buying organizations have good systems of traceability and are able to identify where every carton of our product is grown (ranch ID), harvest crew, date, shift, and when it was loaded on a truck (plus, of course, plant ID, pack line and shift for fresh-cut products). The system falls apart at the distributor. All they know is they logged in 100 boxes of Spring Mix and put it in the Spring Mix slot. In today’s world, that should be unacceptable.

Retail can be a little better just because sometimes retailers decide to carry multiple brands and so slot them differently. By and large, though, it is the same problem. We lose the information we have because everything gets put in the same slot.

The consequence of this is that a company asking for a recall of 100,000 boxes may be putting in place a recall of double or triple that or more. It raises the costs and disruptions of recalls substantially.

We need to really look at better traceability systems on this end of the business.

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