The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) first found the problem in Quebec, followed quickly by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
This is not merely a cautionary tale. Many people are sick and have been hospitalized. Still, the president of Honduras, Manuel Zelaya, ate a Honduran melon on CNN, attempting to show it was safe, and tried to reverse the onus by arguing American officials should prove the seriousness of the problem rather than force Honduras to disprove the problem.
This reveals a complete lack of understanding of the most basic principles of food safety on the president’s part. Even if eating these melons has a lower risk of illness than getting struck by lightning, the big question is why couldn’t Honduran and Costa Rican officials isolate the problem. Don’t they have the ability to trace product back to its field of origin?
This is a case where merely identifying the country of origin and knowing the rough date of harvest doesn’t cut it. Consumers have little “appetite” for risk. Building confidence in the food we eat, just like building a brand, is the sole responsibility of the seller.
That’s why corporations and governments the world over speak loftily of the need for food “traceability” which can enable a food recall based on a lot numbering system and an audit trail. The idea is to limit exposure to risk by isolating problems. The more accurate the traceability, the less the exposure. A lot of taxpayer money is being poured into improving the traceability standards of modern food-exporting economies.
But how does traceability differ from the related but distinct concept of traceback that was developed by William Kanitz and his staff at ScoringAg and ScoringContainers, divisions of ScoringSystem Inc.
Traceability, in theory and in practice, is a first step towards the much more accurate and beneficial full traceback system. Arcane food companies and food-exporting countries that lack accurate lot numbering should get with the times and develop a traceability system before it’s too late or their tardiness will eventually result in a recall like the one above. But should one then go beyond this first step?
Think of it like this. If you think you’re merely susceptible to food safety issues, then basic traceability might do the trick; but if you’re vulnerable to such issues, full traceback becomes essential.
Honduras and Costa Rica had Eurogap certification, which includes strict and highly bureaucratic traceability standards. They also had certification from private certifiers which required third-party verification that their traceability was at least functioning. And yet they couldn’t isolate the source of the contamination, which meant a full-blown recall was necessary. The problem could have been as simple as a single employee failing to wash his hands, but for lack of full traceback, two national economies will suffer.
Traceability means you’re at least trying, while traceback means you can. ScoringAg and ScoringContainers works in seconds through a fully automated, global-locating, real-time audit trail that resides on a secure database, accessible anywhere in the world through the internet.
Traceback results from embracing traceability, not merely as a bureaucratic regulatory requirement, but as an investment in your company brand or national reputation. It goes to the limits of technology and provides item-level traceability right down to every package, or in this case, every box of melons, from the retail store back to the producer, covering all warehousing, shipping, storage, harvest and employee data in between.
There are many traceability “solutions” available in the world today, but only ScoringAg allows for the uncomplicated accounting of all information pertinent to the integrity of food destined for human consumption.
The fact of the matter is that even the FDA doesn’t have the manpower to dive into manual audit trails, even when such trails are supported by electronic audit trails on computers in the country of origin. Many companies grappling with traceability dream of reducing their sample-recall time from days to hours, but ScoringAg reduces it to minutes, even in the case of actual-recall time.
Is testing a solution? Not after the fact it isn’t. There’s a lot of demand to start testing value-added crops such as certified organic in order to prevent fraud and negligence (go to isitorganic.ca for more info). Nothing’s worse than paying extra for something and wondering if you’re really getting what you’re paying for. But the case above isn’t about value-added food; just regular, everyday products that anyone might buy.
While random, unannounced, quality control testing should be part of a company’s, or a nation’s, traceback system, it can’t prevent what happened in Honduras and Costa Rica. In short, even with a hundred times the manpower, the CFIA and FDA had no choice but to play it safe and recall all the melons. And now the hard-working farmers of Honduras and Costa Rica will pay a very dear price.
Conclusion: Traceability is a buzzword. Traceback is the ideal.
Sound expensive? It’s only pennies per data entry. For more information visit ScoringAg or ScoringContainers.
Written by Mischa Popoff, B.A. (Hon.) Osoyoos, BC Canada