A provision of the federal Food Safety Modernization Act (S. 510) recently signed in to law requires that all players in the US petfood supply chain be able to quickly trace from whom they received an ingredient and to whom they sent it. Petfood manufacturers will have to maintain that information in digital form, which means consumers could tap into this information through their computers or smartphones.
"The 'one step forward, one step back' traceability requirement - for processed food and produce - is designed to make it easier for the Food and Drug Administration to identify the source of an outbreak of foodborne illness, trace its path and swiftly remove it from the food supply," according to a January 2011 Washington Post article.
The new requirement represents a major adjustment for the US petfood system, as the government can now impose standards and electronic record-keeping on an industry where many small players still rely on paper invoices and smiling guarantees. The new law has many petfood and treat producers scrambling to meet requirements. Tracking technology and management of data are two things suddenly very important for all manufacturers. But just what does the new Food Safety Modernization Act require in terms of traceability and supply chain safety and how can you meet those requirements?
First, what does the new law ask of manufacturers and what are the deadlines?
Answer: Within nine months, FDA must develop pilot programs with the processed food sector and produce industry, and within 18 months, FDA must provide a report to Congress on recommendations for establishing more effective product tracing, including consideration of:
- Costs and benefits;
- Feasibility of technologies for different sectors; and
- Existing practices and international efforts.
Segments of the food industry have been required since 2005 to be able to trace "one step forward, one step back," but not farms or restaurants. But according to a 2009 investigation by the Department of Health and Human Services' inspector general, most food facilities surveyed did not meet those requirements, and 25% didn't even know about the law. Establishment of a product tracing system that encompassed all sectors of the human food and petfood industries was inevitable.
In some cases, companies are going beyond the federal requirement and making a portion of the traceability information available to consumers, who are increasingly interested in the way their pets' food is produced. HarvestMark, based in California, has developed a two-dimensional bar code sticker that can be placed on individual fruits and vegetables or packaging. Shoppers can scan the sticker with a smartphone or go to the HarvestMark website and enter the number from the sticker to learn the path the food has taken and other information the farmer chooses to share, such as the harvest date.
Essentially, this new system gives pet parents the option to be more aware of their products and where it comes from. "There's been a very rapid sea of change in consumer behavior," said Elliott Grant, the chief marketing officer for HarvestMark, in the January Washington Post article. "With very high-profile food recalls, cellphones and iPhones, people have been trained that they can access information very quickly. They want to know, 'Where does this come from and is it safe? How far has it traveled? What are the growing practices?' " And if it applies to human food, consumers will certainly apply it to petfoods as well. It's best to be prepared.