Agricultural Traceability 101
Health issues are foremost in our minds today. When discussing food safety, one topic that comes up frequently is traceability. This refers to the ability to track produce through all steps of the supply, production, and distribution process; from seed lots to dinner tables. Admittedly, this can sound like quite a bit of paperwork.
Today we’ll walk through the basics of a traceability process and see how farm management software, like Farmbrite, can help.
Benefits of Traceability
Without accurate record keeping, claims that produce is local or organic or otherwise are just that; claims. Traceability means you can provide customers with evidence that supports and documents these claims. This evidence can also open doors to new markets.
Traceability can increase customer confidence and enhance your brand’s reputation. Improved inventory accuracy – brought about by traceability efforts – can also reduce spoilage and shrinkage.
However, the primary benefits of traceability become apparent when a food-borne illness (or other type of concern) occurs. Accurate record keeping can help facilitate efficient (and less costly) recalls, minimize the impact of contaminated produce, and settle complaints and questions. Good records can also facilitate getting back in business sooner after a recall – particularly when you can demonstrate that your lots were not part of the recall.
Internal and External Traceability
To implement traceability, farmers need to track both internally and externally. Internally refers to where and how produce is grown on the farm. This includes information like the crop name and variety, the specific block or field, treatments, harvest dates, harvest crew, and more.
External traceability requires tracking both one step back (your suppliers) and one step forward (your buyers). Tracking suppliers means recording things like lot numbers from seeds and all other inputs. Tracking buyers can be done through your invoicing. If you sell directly to consumers, tracking may take the form of maintaining a customer mailing list.
Using Lot Codes
Traceability is accomplished by using unique codes associated with individual lots of produce. While the code can be any combination of numbers, letters, and colors, codes can be created in such a way that you can ascertain certain facts at a glance. These could include the crop and variety name, field or block, and harvest and packing dates. Using Julian dates (numbering 1 to 365) rather than months and days can save space and make details less obvious to casual observers.
Your lot code could also include information about your spray records, soil amendment applications, harvest and packing crews, packinghouse details, and more. This article from the Virginia Cooperative Extension discusses one lot code approach in detail.
These codes need to be associated with each lot, often by use of stickers or stamps. Farmbrite makes it easy to print out QR codes that can link to all of this information and can be accessed anywhere using a smartphone. Printing these codes to adhesive-backed paper makes it easy to post this information on containers and in the field.
Again, no matter what code you use, each lot must have a unique code, and every container leaving your farm should bear that code.
What Is a Lot?
A lot is simply a specific portion of a crop. You get to decide what this means on your farm. A lot might be the entire crop harvested from the same field on the same day. On bigger farms, that might represent several lots.
While smaller lots necessitate more record keeping, there are related benefits. Should a recall occur, smaller lots can increase efficiency and reduce the likelihood that impacted produce gets distributed to multiple buyers. Accordingly, smaller lots can result in less produce being recalled.
Other Ways Farmbrite Can Help with Traceability
While traceability measures can be started using a notebook, a pen, and some masking tape, technology can help.
When you add a new crop in Farmbrite, you’re asked to enter information specific to your farm, like the field and bed number. You’re also asked for data specific to your inputs, like the seed company, origin, and lot number. Entered once, this information is then linked throughout Farmbrite whenever you need it. You can enter a trace number or simply have one automatically generated. Either way, it’s automatically linked to your inventory.
Similarly, at harvest time, you enter in the data you need to record – once. This includes information like how much you harvested and when. This can even be done via the Farmbrite mobile app.
The way to test your traceability system is to conduct a mock recall. To do so, you identify one or more lot numbers, then contact the associated buyer(s). You might select a lot you know you sold to a buyer with whom you have a long relationship, or you might select the lot at random.
Either way, let the buyer know you’re conducting a mock recall, ask how much of the lot they have sold and how much they have left, then document their response. Time is of the essence. A typical recall needs to be completed within 2-4 hours, because in a real recall you’d want to reach buyers before the food was consumed.
If you sell directly to consumers, reach out to them by phone if possible. Again, explain you’re conducting a mock recall to insure their safety, and indicate that you will follow-up with an email. In the email, ask them how much they’ve consumed. You will want to keep their email reply in your records. In all cases, be clear that the product identified in the mock recall CAN be distributed and consumed, and that you are simply taking these steps to ensure food safety.
If you run into any hurdles in your mock recall, consider the test a success, as it has identified areas in which you can improve your traceability and recall processes.
Clearly, implementing accurate traceability can have significant benefits in the event of a food-borne illness. However, it also has benefits on non-emergency days. Traceability can provide your buyers and customers with more reasons to purchase from you.
Farmbrite can not only save the time it takes to track the information necessary for traceability, it also offers easy accessibility to this info. Try Farmbrite for free.