While Chipotle remains embroiled in a public relations crisis, the long-lauded fast casual still cannot pinpoint the source of its E. coli and salmonella troubles. This information gap raises an unsettling question for all operators: how much supply chain transparency is truly available in the industry, and what sort of efforts can be done to make food traceability more realistic?
The largest, most cohesive effort the industry has seen was the Produce Traceability Initiative (PTI), which was launched after retail and foodservice organizations rallied together following the 2006 spinach E. coli outbreak.
The initiative launched with ambitions to create a more systematic approach to enhance speed, knowledge, and transparency throughout the supply chain.
PTI lit a fire under concerned groups on all levels of the supply chain, and growers and shippers invested heavily in labeling every bit of produce they handled.
Ross Bonn, agriculture tech program manager for the Bunzl Corporation, remembers PTI’s initial rollout garnering a lot of attention and bringing together some of the brightest minds in the industry to steer stewardship efforts and bring about permanent change.
Though the initiative continues to advocate for systemic improvements, Bonn says that restaurants and retailers aren’t fully using the massive efforts growers and shippers put into labeling and accounting for every box of their products.
“People have tried to rally within the industry, but the fact is now that the very people that built PTI are reluctant to spend the money to make it happen,” Bonn says. “Interest has waned from some necessary parties, and that’s why we are where we are with continued outbreaks.”
As these things tend to go, interest didn’t wane arbitrarily—it faded because traceability requires not only a huge coordinated effort, but also a sizeable amount of money.
This is exacerbated by the fact that investing in total traceability is something that’s difficult to see direct returns from in day-to-day operations. When an outbreak does occur though, that knowledge provides a way for brands to get ahead of the problem quickly and stop it at its source before more customers get sick or brand image suffers.
With the emphasis on menuing unprocessed produce and using smaller and often less organized local suppliers, not having this vital information is an increasingly risky business.
With recent food safety scares top-of-mind, operators are again beginning to rally behind the insurance offered by food traceability.
At the supply chain management company iTradeNetwork, traceability expert Ray Connelly comes into contact with concerned operators nearly every day.
“The ‘why’ of traceability is being answered today pretty clearly by the outbreaks and negative press for those companies, but the ‘how’ is where people are getting stuck,” he says.
How, for instance, can a brand manage to trace the strawberries on its new salad all the way back to the field where they were grown and harvested by small, international, seasonal teams?
Connelly says the key to uniting so many disparate, complicated pieces of the supply chain lies in simple data sharing.
iTrade already collects supply chain data to help brands deal with procurement, logistics, and fulfillment needs. Tacking on traceability is just the logical extension.
“It takes a lot of partners, but our software and technology is actually there in the dirt with workers picking the lettuce and labeling it right in the field, and we embed traceability components right into the labels and the packaging,” he says. “Then it’s just up to the seller themselves to accept that information and provide a level of transparency and accuracy on a day-to-day basis.”
By having access to this information, brands give themselves a speedy solution to safety crises, while also creating unique opportunities for customer engagement.
In fact, by turning risk management into a marketing strategy, brands can actually see more regular returns from investments in traceability. This is especially true with the peak levels of consumer interest in knowing more about the places and people involved in getting their meal from the farm to their fork.
Perhaps this consumer interest will prove to be the last piece of the puzzle to motivate players at every level of the industry to cooperate and achieve total supply chain traceability, once and for all.
Because if there’s anything the hospitality industry can agree on, it’s that the customer is always right.
By Emily Byrd