Food product traceability in the supply chain is fundamental to ensure food safety

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In the agri-food chain, from raw material to processing and production, from packaging to distribution, traceability of food products is of paramount importance to ensure food safety for the end consumer, complying with current regulations.

At each stage of the supply chain, when there is a problem with a product that is deemed to be non-compliant with food safety requirements, the effectiveness of the traceability system allows for the rapid identification of incriminated batches to be immediately withdrawn from the market to ensure food safety to protect consumer health.

Traceability is an important aspect of food safety: EU Regulation n. 178/2002

EU Regulation n. 178 of 2002, “lays down the general principles and requirements of food law, establishes the European Food Safety Authority and lays down procedures in matters of food safety”.

An important aspect of food safety is traceability, defined in the Article 3 of the aforementioned regulation as “the ability to trace and follow a food, feed, food-producing animal or substance intended to be, or expected to be incorporated into a food or feed through all stages of production, processing and distribution”. That is, everything in the food chain intended for human consumption must retain a trace of its history, from the raw materials through production to the final consumer.

Food traceability: rules and obligations of operators in the supply chain

EU Regulation n. 178/2002 and its subsequent integration with the European “Hygiene Package” of January 2006, establishes rules and obligations for operators in the sector, regarding the traceability of food products and their compliance with food safety, at every stage of the production and distribution cycle.

As stated in Art. 18 of the aforementioned regulation, each operator in the chain must be able to identify its suppliers and track the history of the raw material acquired for processing. Following the processing of the food product, each operator must have systems and procedures in place to trace its production process and to identify the companies in the chain to which it has supplied batches of its products.

Each operator in the supply chain must ensure that his product meets the food law provisions of the above-mentioned regulation. Furthermore, he must keep documentation on the traceability of the batches of foodstuffs under his responsibility in filing systems, which he must make available to the competent authorities.

If an operator in the food chain considers that a food imported, processed, produced, or distributed by him or her, which is no longer under his or her immediate control, does not comply with food safety requirements, he or she must immediately initiate procedures to withdraw it and inform the competent authorities. In such cases, traceability information throughout the supply chain is essential to quickly identify incriminated batches for the protection of consumer health.

Traceability therefore requires an effective communication system between actors in the supply chain, from production to packaging and from logistics to distribution. Accurate recording and storage of traceability data is important to ensure food safety and to respond quickly to emergency situations or recalls of non-compliance.

Mandatory information that must accompany food products

EU Regulation n. 1169/2011 defines the rules governing the mandatory information that must accompany food products placed on the EU market.

The aforementioned regulation stipulates that the mandatory information accompanying the food must be clear and easy to understand, so as not to confuse and mislead the consumer. It also stipulates that mandatory information on prepacked food may be indelibly printed directly on the packaging or on a label attached to it, in a conspicuous and clearly legible position, so that there is no interference with other writing or graphics.

Article 9, in accordance with Articles 10 to 35 of EU Regulation n. 1169/2011, specifies the mandatory particulars that must accompany a food placed on the market. These include ingredient information with quantities, the nutrition declaration, the name of the food, the expiry date, and the storage and use conditions. Among the mandatory information that is useful for product traceability, important is the indication of the name or company name and address of the food business operator marketing the food, who is also responsible for the information on the food.

Marking and labelling in the packaging stage

In packaging lines, in order to be able to print production-related traceability information, including the date and production batch, on food packages, marking equipment compatible with the different packaging materials, or systems for applying printed labels, are required in order to comply with current regulations.

With regard to marking systems in the food & beverage packaging chain, it is possible to directly print information on the primary packaging containing the food (such as flow-packs, cardboard, tin cans or plastic cups, glass, etc.) and on secondary packaging (such as cardboard boxes, envelopes, plastic films, etc.). It is also possible to print the data on adhesive labels that are applied to the packages with automatic labelling machines.

Types of direct-to-pack printing include inkjet, thermal transfer and laser marking.

For traceability between production and logistics, labelling in tertiary packaging is important. One example is the application of labels (also with coded information) at the palletising stage, which is crucial for keeping track of products in shipments and distribution warehouses.

Labellers and marking systems integrated into packaging lines must be flexible systems that can quickly adapt to format changes, packaging materials and the information that needs to be transferred onto the packaging.

Coded identification systems

Coding systems, including Barcodes, Data Matrix and QR Codes, represented by a special “black and white cell graphic language” on food packaging, are a practical and safe method of conveying traceability-relevant information.

Coding systems are used to track food products in production, at the palletising stage and in distribution warehouses. In the supply chain, special scanning sensors read and decipher the coded information applied to the packages, which is stored in special databases to store the data for digital product traceability.

The QR Code, or Quick Response Code, is represented on the product packaging or label by a square graphic symbol and can contain more information than a bar code. As well as being used in production and distribution, the QR Code is also useful for the end consumer. Being able to be read and decoded through the camera of a smartphone, it allows the consumer to obtain additional information beyond the mandatory and traceability information, such as links to online content dedicated to the product itself.

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