Ingredient and product traceability is a requirement throughout the food supply chain in the EU and North America.
However differences in systems and requirements can make international trade more difficult for processors says Hector Lupin, in a paper published by GlobeFish, a fisheries research arm of the FAO.
"Traceability" can be related to regulatory requirements, implemented on a voluntary basis or be commercial in nature, he notes in the paper, presented at an international fisheries trade meeting in Santiago de Compostela, Spain. The meeting ended on 2 June.
"As a result, the word 'traceability' is associated with an increasing number of purposes and objectives, with reference to different attributes, or information, to be traced, as well as to different standards to encode and recover information," he stated. "Not all traceability systems are equivalent and/or interchangeable. Nor can they necessarily be consolidated. Different purposes and systems also trigger different expectations in producers and consumers that do not always correspond to the traceability system in use (regulatory, contractual or voluntary). This partially explains the current uncertainty related to "traceability" requirements and to the possible implications of traceability regulations."
Principles on food traceability proposed to the Codex Alimentarius Commission, the world standard setting body for food safety agreements, have not yet been formally approved.
"This creates difficulties in establishing whether traceability requirements are consistent with the provisions contained in WTO Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) and Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT) agreements;" he writes. "In turn, traceability requirements at the level of contractual import requirements are sometimes confusing, due to the large number of systems referring to 'traceability'."
Many processors are also worried about the unintended effects traceability systems may have on their businesses. In the case of food outbreaks traceability systems can potentially provide information relevant to liability.
"Despite the fact that in most countries liability related to food outbreaks is determined through legal procedures, the food and fish industry may be concerned that the direct assignation of such liability will be established through a traceability regulation," he reported. "Traceability could also be seen as a potential threat to commercial confidentiality, particularly by those involved in the food chain, mostly if information is publicly accessible."
Traceability is not new to the fish and food industry, he writes. Fresh fish is a highly perishable product and traceability systems have been used systematically in the fishery industry. The traceability concept has also been included, explicitly or implicitly, for food safety purposes in several fish and fish product regulations for many years, in particular since the introduction of HACCP-based regulations.
External traceability systems for food chains have been developed during recent decades and introduced world wide. In the case of fisheries they are a result of the expansion of international fish trade and, more recently, the growth of fish retailing in food supermarket chains. External traceability, refers to systems aimed to allow the traceability of a product and its attributes through the successive stages of the distribution chain.
Internal traceability refers to the traceability of raw materials, intermediate and final products within a fish plant. Internal traceability systems are also used as a means of improving productivity and reducing costs.