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With Natasha’s Law now in full effect across the food sector, labelling and traceability have never been more important. This is because “Traceability provides a way for consumers to track the origins of their food and ensure that it is safe to eat”, according to Ken Sickles, chief product officer at Digimarc.
Andy Zynga, CEO of EIT Food, also noted that “Food traceability can also be used to certify products, ensuring that only fair and sustainable goods make it to market.”
He continued, “This is a demand we are increasingly hearing from consumers, with over half in the UK (54%) saying that they take sustainability into account when making food choices. By offering consumers greater access to information about where their food comes from, they can make more informed choices about the sustainability and health benefits of the products they buy.”
It is for this reason that “Food traceability is key to increasing consumer trust in the food system, as it offers consumers the ability to see the journey of food products across every part of the food supply chain”, Andy said.
As small indie retailers are currently the most trusted retailers in the UK, they have a key opportunity here to capitalise on a consumer desire for improved traceability.
Issues with traceability in the UK
In order to create a transparent food system in the UK, there are several issues that need to be addressed. According to Andy, “Traditionally, the complexity and vast global reach of modern food supply chains make it extremely hard to track products through every stage of their journey.
“The UK food system relies on an increasingly globalised food supply network, making it increasingly important to find methods which enable us to efficiently and effectively track products through these supply chains. In order for food products in the UK to become truly traceable, it is crucial that the agri-food industry come together to share ideas and best practices for raising traceability standards.”
When it comes to our seafood, the waters are even murkier. As Keith explained, “UK food businesses are legally required to put in place systems and controls to ensure that the seafood they sell is safe and traceable. However, there are still some gaps in the system which make it difficult to track seafood products from boat to plate. This is particularly an issue for imported seafood, which often changes hands several times before reaching the UK market.
“There is also no single, centralised database of seafood products or standardisation in the way that seafood products are labelled. Therefore, the challenge for retailers is that each supply partner has different traceability reporting protocols. A common language for traceability in retail is much needed.”
A technological solution?
With barriers such as price and accessibility, the uptake of digital solutions has been limited due to a lack of technological maturity, and there is a perception that digitalisation of processes may be too costly and overcomplicated for smaller businesses or farms.
But, as Andy explained, “By tracking a product via digital systems, traceability technologies such as blockchain can alleviate and reduce many of the agri-food sector’s most pressing risks. These technologies provide the ability to efficiently identify and trace the history, distribution, location and application of a product, enabling automation and reducing the risk of human error. This helps to quickly identify issues, isolate them and easily track the route of problems when they occur.”
One business already championing technology as a means of guaranteeing traceability to their customers is The Ethical Butcher. Glen Burrows, co-founder, explained, “We use very simple technology. We buy direct from farmers, visit each farm and make a film about how the animals are raised, what regenerative methods are employed and where they are, we then link this information to the product with a QR code which is included on the thermal print label on each product.
“The feedback we get is excellent and we can see from the viewing figures that people do actually click on and watch the content. This is followed up with a very high return rate and some customers have definitely developed a loyalty to certain farms after they have had a positive experience.”
As Andy explains, “There is a clear opportunity for fine food retailers to embrace consumer demand by providing provenance to their customers. One way they can do this is to integrate more closely with their local food suppliers and producers, dealing with them directly where possible to reduce the complexity of the value chain for each product. Providing this local provenance can also help to reinforce the premium nature of their products.”
Keith added, “Independent fine food retailers can play a key role in ensuring the traceability of their produce by working closely with their suppliers. They should ensure that they have clear and concise contracts in place which outline their requirements for traceability and provenance.
“They should also keep detailed records of all the products they sell, including information on where they were sourced and when they were sold. This will help to build consumer confidence and loyalty, and ultimately support the sustainable growth of the business.”
As Glen concluded, “Retailers simply need to demand more information, and if this isn’t available, try to shorten the supply chain as much as possible by buying directly from the producer.”