Tuber Talk (Summer 2010)

The concept of traceability of food sources has become a very important issue for everyone involved in the food chain over the past number of years. Food safety scares around the globe are making headlines in the mass media— and rightfully so. No matter how alarmist and sometimes unjustified these headlines might be, they undoubtedly result in increased consumer concern over what’s on the family’s plate. This consumer concern—together with increased legislation—forces retailers, producers, and suppliers of foodrelated products to make greater efforts and allocate more resources to improve visibility or traceability across the supply chain, from producer to retailer.

Traceability has many definitions. Some experts describe it as the ability to locate an animal, commodity, food product, or ingredient and follow its history in the supply chain forward (from source to consumer) or backward (from consumer to source). Others describe traceability as the ability to track products up and down a supply chain. The source of the product can be identified at any stage in the distribution system.

Closer to home, the potato industry defines traceability as the ability to maintain an unbroken record for a potato crop as it moves through the distribution system—from the time a crop is planted in the field to the  time it reaches consumers as fresh or processed products: in essence, from “farm to fork.”

Companies in most developed nations around the world are demanding more information from their suppliers on how the food they purchase was produced, stored, moved, processed, and distributed to ensure the safety and quality of these products. This is also true for companies operating within the potato industry.

As food producers we really have no choice; we have to be in a position in which we can tell consumers where their food is coming from, what happened to it when we had control of the raw product, how we treated it and with what products, and so forth. Accountability has become an inevitable part of modern-day farming. Our customers—the consumers of our products—have come to expect this of us.

Traceability of food products has been an ever-increasing issue of importance in Canada. An objective of the Agricultural Policy Framework in Canada is the implementation of a Canadawide traceability system throughout the food and processing chain to meet public protection, consumer preferences, and commercial requirements.

Not long ago, the  Canadian Horticultural Council established an On-Farm Food Safety (OFFS) program called CanadaGap (Good Agricultural Practices). The program consists of national food safety standards and a certification system for the safe production, storage, and packing of fresh fruits and vegetables. Each crop type, including potatoes, has its own manual, which acts as a practical guide to good agricultural practices, incorporating most of the important aspects of traceability.

Worth the Time

To many potato growers the concept and practical implications of food traceability spell more paperwork, higher input costs, and, in general, another source of worry. However, keep in mind there is another side to this as well.

An effective traceability system offers many benefits to potato growers beyond ensuring customers that the products they produce are safe. In the unfortunate event of the discovery of a new disease or pest, or in the case of an unwanted contamination, a well-documented traceability program can help growers track down the problem and limit its impact much quicker with an effective tracking system in place.

Furthermore, the ability to clearly identify and circumscribe the source of a particular problem to a single field or seed source can allow potato growers to minimize their economic loss by allowing them to market the portion of their crop that is not affected, rather than losing the ability to market the entire crop. In the case of the discovery of a quarantine soilborne disease that would require a field to be removed from production, a traceability program allows growers to identify exactly which field is affected and thus limit the amount of land that would be placed under restriction by a plant health protection agency.

There should be no doubt that a solid traceability system allows growers to have a better understanding of how their management practices, such as fertility, are influencing their returns. Linking factory grades to actual fields will provide growers with new tools to manage field-specific problems, such as pests and diseases, or to pinpoint quality problems such as specific gravity—an important issue for process growers. In short, traceability will give growers the opportunity to optimize the use of agricultural inputs in order to maximize economic return.

Implementation Tips

In practical terms, traceability is the ability to maintain an unbroken record of the crop as it moves through the agricultural distribution system. Record keeping is a key element of farm management, and, in this sense, most growers have been complying with current requirements for traceability for a long time. On the farm, this means maintaining a record of farm activities from the time the seed is received to the time potatoes are delivered to the factory or packing company.

Since a field is the basic unit of production, traceability records need to be kept on a field by field basis. When growers establish an on-farm traceability program, first they need to identify all fields that will be used for production in a given year. Drawing reference maps showing the location of all fields or using a map generated by aerial photography would be very useful.

Fields are usually identified by a unique name or number to ensure they cannot be confused. Each field must contain only one variety to make tracking easier and less complicated. When a field contains two or more varieties, each section of the field must be given a unique name. For instance, if a field called “123” contains two varieties, each section must be clearly identified as, for example, “123A” for one variety and “123B” for the second variety. To allow for comparison in time, the name of the field should be permanent. All crop management information, such as pesticide application, seed source, and so on, needs to be collected and maintained for every field.

The next step is to keep track of the potatoes as they move from the field to the processing plant or into storage. For stored potatoes, the challenge is to keep track of where potatoes from each field are placed. Each storage facility will have to be identified by a unique name or number. If the storage is divided into bins, each one of them will have to have a unique identifier.

Finally, it makes sense to divide each bin into smaller units that will allow for easier location of potatoes in storage. Establishing a diagram of all storages, showing the bins and their positions, will help keep track of the location of the potatoes. Upon delivery, the grower then keeps track of which storage facility, bin, and position within the bin the potatoes are coming from, and this will allow the grower to trace the potatoes back to the field they were grown in.

Nowadays, growers and storage managers can rely on modern technologies to assist in the task of traceability. Several equipment companies have taken traceability into account and there are many recently developed technologies available that can be utilized by producers, ranging from sensors employed in storage structures, to data displayed on the Internet.

Traceability of a potato from the field to storage and on to its eventual  destination requires more work, but the benefits, such as assuring the consumer the product is safe and the maintenance of good agricultural practices, far outweigh any inconvenience.