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Special Feature: No weak links

Seafood buyers drive advances in traceability

Seafood, often sourced from remote locales, presents traceability challenges - Illustration by Laura Lee Dobson / dish courtesy of Devon & Bristol
By Lauren Kramer
February 05, 2011

Since the 2002 Farm Bill mandated country of origin labeling (COOL) for seafood and other food products, the ability and responsibility of companies to trace their product throughout the supply chain has become increasingly relevant. Legislatively, not much has changed since the Farm Bill’s 2009 compliance date. However, the Food Safety and Tracking Improvement Act proposes to establish a national traceability system under Food and Drug Administration jurisdiction.

The system would use electronic records that identify each sale, purchase or trade of the product and its ingredients, as well as the parties involved in those transactions. It’s still in the first step of the legislative process, but the writing is on the wall, says Phil Fitzpatrick, a traceability consultant in Naples, Fla.

“There’s a lot of movement to improve inspections and the speed from which recalls can be done,” he says. “The FDA says it takes three months to track down where an offending item has come from, which is unacceptable. Traceability and the pace at which a recall can be enacted have to improve.”

Traceability is the ability to follow the movement of a food product through its stages of production, processing and distribution. That would be easy if the product you buy is the same as the product you sell, but when it comes to seafood, that’s typically not the case.

“Take an item like pollock,” says Fitzpatrick. “It might be fished out of the Gulf of Alaska, processed on a boat, shipped to China for [further] processing, shipped back to the United States to an importer and then sold. That presents some challenges when it comes to traceability.”

There are a few software packages on the market that help seafood companies keep track of traceability information. Wisefish, a product of AKVA Group North America, is one software solution that manages inventory, sales, distribution, lot traceability and quality control. NetYield, a Plymouth, Mass.-based company, is another. NetYield manages one link in the traceability supply chain by assisting in the management of weight-based commodities with sales, purchasing and inventory management.

“We’ve been on the market for 20 years and 80 percent of our clients are in the seafood industry,” says Mark Bennie, NetYield president. In the last year business has grown significantly more than in the previous three years, he adds. “I think it’s because seafood companies are more concerned about COOL and they’re starting to do things about it.”

NetYield’s system costs $1,995 plus $1 per day for upgrades and support and can be purchased either by subscription or perpetual license, although most companies license, adds Bennie.

Many in the seafood supply chain are now able to state definitively where their seafood originated and from whom they purchased it. But what about other points in the supply chain? TraceRegister, a Seattle-based company founded in 2005, created one solution through its Web-based software. Provided all parties in a supply chain sign up for it, TraceRegister creates a single platform that gives retailers visibility across the complete supply chain for a particular product.

“Our system recognizes that there are lots of good internal traceability systems, but the challenge is sharing that information through the supply chain, so a retailer like Safeway could get information about the source of their fish,” says Andy Furner, VP of business development and sales at TraceRegister.

The company has 450 customers worldwide, and though TraceRegister can manage all food categories, the majority of its customers are in the seafood industry. Eighty percent of them are located outside of the United States, and customer numbers have been doubling with each passing year, Furner says.

“We charge by role in the supply chain. It could cost $150 a year for a small farm or fishing vessel, or up to $6,000 a year for a large distributor, which would include all their products and customers.”

Large retailers, in particular, are driving TraceRegister’s growth, Furner says. “More and more, it’s becoming a way of doing business by large retailers who want to ensure they have key information about their products for quality or sustainable seafood programs,” he adds. “Delhaize America has come out with a sustainable seafood policy, for example, which is very clear about what types of seafood the company will buy and where they will buy it from. They’re using TraceRegister to confirm everyone is complying with that.”

Fitzpatrick consulted for TraceRegister and says it works because it “gives buyers the whole life story of a particular product. The use of traceability is growing,” he says. “I would say within the next two to three years it will be mandatory.”

The National Fisheries Institute (NFI) of McLean, Va., is trying to prepare the industry for precisely that. Barbara Blackistone, director of scientific affairs at NFI, is one of a 14-member task force on traceability, a group formed in November 2009 to create a traceability framework for the industry. “We’re trying to prepare ourselves for future legislation,” she says. “The meat and poultry folks have a traceability document, and we want the seafood industry to be speaking off the same page.”

The NFI hopes to have its industry guideline on traceability available at the International Boston Seafood Show next month.

Contributing Editor Lauren Kramer lives in British Columbia

February 2011 - SeaFood Business

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