That quote seems especially relevant to those of us who have started down this sustainable business path, where we’ve taken upon ourselves a responsibility to prove to customers and consumers that we’re making good on our commitments.
Information accuracy is vital to every company pursuing any kind of sustainability endeavor, whether it be cutting back on packaging waste, lowering energy use or reducing carbon emissions.
Specifically in the seafood industry, companies that are committed to purchasing seafood sustainably are exploring the most effective traceability methods available to be certain they are on the right path.
Those companies that take steps to make sure there are no weak links as information is collected and shared between each participant in the supply chain, verifying that no illegally caught or unsafe seafood makes its way to the customers, will be best positioned to succeed. Companies need to be able to enhance the traceability systems they already have, otherwise they can outsource this aspect of their business using third party traceability systems.
First and foremost, traceability is about ensuring food safety. But it’s also of critical importance when it comes to sustainability.
WalMart has taken a leadership position that includes only using valid, sound, scientific data to verify that the products seafood producers sell them come from sustainable sources, and non-governmental organizations are working to convince other companies to follow suit.
Using the most advanced traceability technologies available, processors can provide to their customers product-specific data, including what has been sold over a specific period of time, what the source fishery or aquaculture facility is, the Latin species name, and the “gear type,” or method in which the fish was sourced.
Achieving this level of transparency and accuracy of data is a major undertaking, and will likely be the puzzle that keeps many company heads of sustainability awake at night.
This March, the National Fisheries Institute and GS1 US released an implementation guide for seafood traceability, which outlines best practices for tracking seafood as it is delivered through the supply chain, from the ocean to the plate.
Among these recommendations were five business processes that should be implemented to ensure effective seafood traceability:
- Plan and organize how to assign, collect, share and maintain traceability information;
- Determine a system to align master data – that data essential to your core business – which is required for all products and participants in the supply chain;
- Record traceability information as products are created and shipped, along with critical tracking events;
- Request a trace of at least one of several information sources, which include a unique product identifier, a Global Location Number (GLN) which might indicate the specific vessel or aquaculture farm, dates or time periods for each product, and the lot number;
- Use the information to take appropriate action.
As many seafood producers have found, implementing these business processes in a way that allows you to accurately trace items both “forward and backward” along the supply chain is a major challenge.
This is because of the nature of the seafood supply chain itself, which has multiple players who play primary roles, including the vessels or aquaculture farms, brokers, processors, retail stores, distributors, wholesalers, and retail or foodservice operators. There are also those in supporting roles, such as logistics service providers who handle transportation and storage.
In addition, there are two levels of traceability: internal traceability systems allow a company to track products within its own business, while external traceability systems track a product outside of the business, usually requiring a level of information-sharing that is more complex and therefore prone to error.
As the NFI-GS1 guide notes, traceability processes “are only as good as their weakest link.”
To that end, we have found that a sustainable seafood traceability process that ensures full transparency to customers involves the following measures:
- First and foremost, going “upstream” along the supply chain all the way to the source and verifying that the information you’re receiving, such as the fishery type and the gear type, is 100 percent accurate. “One up, one back” food safety doesn’t always provide the complete picture. Typical product recall systems don’t provide the level of detail back to the source to validate that the products have come from a sustainable resource;
- Making sure that the information from the supplier is translated accurately internally. In other words, that you’re using consistent documentation methods to allow information-sharing to be more accurate;
- Developing a traceability system that eliminates multiple individuals from having to enter the same information into the system. This will reduce the chance for error;
- Adding value for your customers by using your traceability information to help customers make intelligent decisions about the products they are buying.
It’s clear that organizations undertaking sustainable product traceability face enormous challenges. It takes a commitment from top to bottom, continuous engagement with suppliers to ensure information is valid, and perhaps most importantly, a willingness to learn from mistakes to strengthen your methods of tracing products.
All responsible food businesses today maintain traceability information from a food safety perspective, but they need to enhance this information internally, bringing it to the next level, allowing them to provide full traceability back to source information in a timely manner. Those companies that do this most effectively will absolutely give themselves a competitive advantage.
Bill DiMento is Corporate Director of Sustainability at High Liner Foods, Inc., a leading North American processor and marketer of superior quality seafood. He oversees all of High Liner Foods’ corporate-level sustainability initiatives, ensuring the company is reducing its overall environmental footprint and complying with the strictest standards of seafood procurement. DiMento is a professional member of the Institute of Food Technologies, U.S. Representative to CODEX, and has been past chairman of the NFI Technical Committee. DiMento has been named to the Board of Directors for the International Association of Fish Inspectors and the Atlantic Fisheries Technology Conference. High Liner has developed customer- and product-specific “sustainability report cards” that will be delivered to customers to help them make informed choices as to which products are sourced sustainably or where they are in the process of achieving certification.