By Lucina E. Lampila*
The airplane may have had a mechanical failure that delayed departure and although there was cold storage at the site, the airline assumed that the issue would be resolved quickly and the shrimp would be fine. In reality, it took 24 hours for the engine part to arrive and the temperature on the airplane exceeded 38˚C for 20 hours. In that time, melanosis or black spot would have taken place along with bacterial and biochemical decomposition. Assuming the flight did take off on time, what if the customs broker failed to meet the flight to accept the shrimp and they were off loaded and left at ambient temperature for two days? Assuming the flight was on time and the broker immediately took charge and kept the shrimp chilled, what else might have happened? The wholesaler took ownership of the shrimp but left them on his loading dock in the hot sun for six hours. All three scenarios are entirely possible and have, unfortunately, occurred at one time or another. Usually from a distance, it is very difficult to identify the weak link in the cold chain and those to blame will seldom admit their error. Is there a way to have better control over your product?
Traceability provides valuable tracking information to the source of the delivery as well as back to the source of its production. Traceability systems are used to protect food safety and quality. These systems can be used to track date of production, temperature in storage and distribution, and location and time in the distribution channel. Tracking product in transit and distribution can have many advantages to include protecting the company and/or product reputation; to better differentiate one supplier from another; guarantee origin; improve supply management and be a very effective system in the event of a product recall.
Traceability systems may consist of one of three types. Each step in the system receives information from the previous step. This is the least expensive system. The second system will receive all information from previous steps. The third system uses an organization that collects information from each step and links all the information into a cohesive file. This is the most expensive system.
Tracking mechanisms can include a bar code such as the universal price code (UPC) label. Bar codes are common and the reading technology is universal. Limitations to the bar code include the difficulty to read if covered in condensate which is common to seafood products and the fact that the label may fall off a package if not directly printed onto the packaging. Quick response (QR) codes are the two dimensional black and white box style codes may be read to give information ranging from origin, to special offers or lead back to a website for more detailed data. The ubiquitous smart phone has led to an explosion of QR codes on products, packaging and advertising. The most sophisticated type of transmitter is the radio frequency identification (RFID) tag. These tags may send information regarding location and time but may also be designed to provide time temperature data. Such tags may be individual units added to a shipment or even be built into the packaging with the added need to develop the logistics to have packaging returned for re-use. Time-temperature RFID tags would have been the perfect means to track the shrimp outlined in the above scenario to prevent an inferior product delivered to an angry customer and to know the weak link or links in the cold chain.
RFID tags may use either magnetic induction or microwave frequencies to send signals. Systems consist of three parts: an identifier which is typically tamperproof; an activating or reading device and software to electronically read and transfer the data. Tags may be either single or multi-use. Tags may be active and send a signal up to 30 meters or be passive or read by an electromagnetic reader. The electromagnetic reader is thought to work well under temperature extremes, such as, freezers. The high moisture content of seafood may interfere with transmission signals particularly in the microwave range. Therefore, systems should be tested in-house and be product specific before making a commitment to a particular system.
Tracing seafood origin is far easier in aquaculture systems than in the wild caught fishery. Traceability within the aquaculture industry is critical for making claims of sustainability which is far more important within the retail and hospitality sectors. Traceability may also be used to protect against allegations of inferior quality and/or origin of fish.
For more information please see:
The Global Food Traceability Center, http://www.ift.org/gftc.aspx; Food Safety News, http://www.foodsafetynews.com/2013/05/the-changing-world-of-food-chain-traceability/#.VfLsPdJViko, and for global initiatives, The International Union of Food Science and Technology, http://www.iufost.org/iufostftp/IUF.SIB.Food%20Traceability.pdf
*Lucina E. Lampila, Ph.D., R.D., C.F.S. is a food scientist who has worked with the U.S. Sea Grant College Program at academic institutions on the West Coast, in the Mid-Atlantic and the Gulf Coast. She worked for ingredient manufacturers in the private sector and had global responsibilities for value-added seafood processing.