As the world’s population approaches 9.8 billion in 2050, the importance of food safety is increasing. To combat future outbreaks, governments and food corporations are looking to food traceability platforms to keep our food safe.

Food traceability, at its most basic level, means the ability to track any food, food-producing animal or food product that will be used for consumption, at any stage of production, processing, or distribution. It needs to be able to be traced back to the farm it was grown, the location it was picked, and the time it was harvested. Most importantly, that information must be readily available. Traceability allows us to prevent any risks associated with food and ensure that all food products remain safe. 

Despite the continued rapidly growing demand for local food, local food wants to compete with the broader food system. In order to do so, there will have to be a low cost and easy-to-use food traceability system to ensure to customers that their food is safe, and to prevent risk in the event of an outbreak. 

Not to mention, a traceability solution that tracks and communicates the supply chain to help consumers track and identify how truly “local” their food is. 

Personally, I was confronted with the realities of this issue this past weekend. I visited the farmers market to get produce - thinking I’d source my groceries this week from small-scale, local producers. Walking through the rows of different vendors, it was difficult to identify the local food I was looking for. At one point, I picked up a pint of blueberries with an unbelievably low price at a small vendor. It wasn’t until after I had purchased, I saw a sign that the blueberries were picked in British Columbia, over 4000 km from where I stood.

How do we create the same transparency systems we’re seeing in large-scale industry and apply it to local food? 

To help address transparency in food systems, the Canadian government has implemented the Safe Food for Canadians Regulations. Within the regulation, they work with a “one-step-back and one-step forward” approach to supply chain management. At any point in the supply chain, any actor must be able to identify from whom they received the food, and to whom they provided the food. 

The reality is - consumers are expecting more. Research shows that the next generation of consumers will be the most educated, diverse, self-aware, and socially connected than any before. The demand for organic, locally produced, and transparent food products will continue to grow. A study in 2016 found that 94% of consumers find it necessary that food manufacturers be transparent about how food is produced. Trust remains to be the most critical factor in food production for consumers. 

Every step of the supply chain should be able to be tracked and monitored, reducing the likelihood of spreading foodborne illness. Food traceability and transparency policies do provide regulations and checkpoints; however, they do not offer that information directly to the consumer.

How do you build a local food supply chain with optimal transparency and traceability? 

You focus on a smaller, connected, online system:

Step One: Digitalize inventory management and order records.

Food must be tracked from the farm. To track a supply chain, all orders, delivery information, and records must be kept and organized in one place. An online system is an automated record-keeping platform that allows suppliers to enter the supply chain. From here, food producers can track every interaction to the source. Clear certifications and regulations can be listed and tracked on online profiles.

Step Two: Clear tracking of planting, spraying, harvesting, packaging, shipping, and, finally, payments.

Now that the products and producers are attached to online profiles, you can systematically link them to markets and customers. Online interactions allow for traceability from production to harvest to purchase. Further, implementing technology for data collection to this step adds value to the system. For example, sensors are capable of collecting, processing, analyzing, and storing data, which can help track parameters such as temperature and location throughout the production and logistics route, and then automatically communicate that to the players. 

Step Three: Ability to track the product across the supply chain.

The final step is to build interconnected, traced, logistics networks. Efficient distribution strategies such as co-loading links drivers to suppliers to create direct routes to consumers. Using GPS, drivers are tracked from start to finish, and customers can follow the delivery right from their smartphones. All deliveries are tracked and recorded.

An online system creates a platform for traceability and transparency across the supply chain. Additionally, initiatives such as My Pick, a specialized certificate for small-scale producers, or using different technology tools that can track planting to harvesting to processing, can all be interconnected into one system. These tools and data will be added to the transparent profiles of suppliers and distributors, giving consumers all the information they were looking for. 

Data is a valuable asset to local food; the system needs a place to display and communicate it to consumers appropriately. The future of local food is not only one of increasing accessibility of small-scale farmers to broader markets, but where traceability and transparency are expected.