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Can Traceability Help Protect Japan's Food Export Sales?

My colleagues in the IDC Manufacturing Insights group wrote about the impacts of the Japanese disaster on large manufacturer's supply chains, soon after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in their March newsletter. I would like to examine the impact on food supplies and markets, particularly seafood, rice, green leafy vegetables and dairy products, which have been severely impacted by the events in Japan. In the short term, production has stalled or at minimum slowed for many of these products, reducing availability for local markets. In the longer term, fears of food contaminated by radiation will require additional monitoring to reassure both the domestic and export markets, and perhaps new strategies that provide visibility to the precise production, packing and shipping locations of distributed consumer, and especially food products.

Local issues - Will Japan's protectionist policies wane to enable supply flexibility for some products?

According to Mariko Sanchanta, in the Wall Street Journal on April 4, 2011, 100 % of Japan's milk, yogurt and rice is sourced domestically, but is in short supply at the moment, with many store shelves still bare. This raises the question as to whether Japan will change some of their protectionist tariffs on these products and welcome more imports. Sanchanta also reports that production levels at Meiji Holdings Co., Japan's leading producer of dairy products, are still at 20% to 50% of pre-earthquake levels, mainly because of the rolling power blackouts in the Tokyo area. According to the report, rolling blackouts are making it difficult to complete the whole production process - whole batches of yogurt have been ruined. The power outages will continue at least through the summer months, if not longer. According to the WSJ, a Meiji spokesman also pointed to another pressing issue - procuring the packages for milk and yogurt, after the tsunami incapacitated some factories that make plastics that are used in containers.

Global issues - The real and feared impact of radiation

No doubt, there is a real danger of crops and products wiped out either by the tsunami or by high levels of radiation in the impacted Japanese regions, but some fears may be unwarranted, specifically related to seafood. Additional testing is certainly warranted. Some areas are not allowed to bring any products to market at this point, but CNN staff reported on April 4, 2011 that the Japanese government is shifting policies as to the geographic areas that must comply with this policy. While the government will not budge, for consumer safety reasons, on the allowed radiation limits, sales restrictions on certain crops, in certain areas, will be lifted. Radiation levels exceeding government limits have been detected in green leafy vegetables, milk, rice and in water. So far, radiation levels have not been reported elevated in seafood.

Unfortunately for Japan, the impacts on food production for domestic and global markets may persist long past the real danger, for food products that are not even sourced from the affected area around the Fukushima nuclear plant. While this is a true statement, one could also argue that most people don't know where their food comes from, nor have they ever really wanted to know. However, the impacts of previous disasters on consumer behavior suggest that the awareness of a potential health and safety threat to one's family is likely to generated new behaviors. One very recent example is the impact on consumer seafood purchases after the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010.

The impact of the BP disaster on the seafood industry

Almost one year after the BP oil accident, the seafood industry is still suffering reduced consumption. Seafood Business, a trade magazine, reports the following changes in seafood consumption (survey conducted by Technomic):

  • 72% of people did not change their seafood consumption habits as a result of the spill (possibly because most consumers don't know where their fish comes from),
  • 23% deliberately cut back on all seafood purchases
  • and of those, 78% said they made a point of specifically avoiding Gulf seafood

A similar study from the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board found that 48.3% of consumers say they are eating less seafood overall.

In an effort to counter the negative impact to regional seafood sales, the Gulf of Mexico Reef Fish Shareholders' Alliance launched Gulf Wild last month, a branding effort that will attach a unique tag to the gill of every fish its members catch. This program utilizes product traceability capabilities to enable consumers to check precisely where the fish was harvested. The program enables consumers to know that their seafood purchase was specifically tested for safety, but also that these fish was caught in an environmentally sustainable way.

Can traceability solutions offer relief to Japan's battered food industry? This data regarding marked changes in consumer purchases of seafood, and specifically seafood from the gulf, provides a sense of similar challenges Japan may face in the coming months and years. Could Japan employ a program similar to the Gulf Wild program to restore its image and protect its food industry? Interestingly, many Japanese producers had already been more progressive in traceability efforts, as consumers demand pedigrees on premium products. In fact Japan already strict regulations about one up, one back traceability across a broad range of food products and full traceability requirements for beef. Assuring consumers would require extending one up, one down traceability all of the way from producer/farm to consumer for all impacted foods. Perhaps, it isn't a big leap for Japan to implement these extended traceability capabilities for seafood and other food including rice, dairy and leafy vegetables produced, packed and shipped from the impacted region. I have read, however, that many companies still do not comply with existing laws.

Other countries have embarked on similar branding efforts. Programs that have been implemented in Thailand and Vietnam via the partnership of FXA, IBM and regional agencies - in Thailand, Thailand's Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives (MOAC) and the Communications Authority of Thailand (CAT); in Vietnam, Vietnam Association of Seafood Exporters and Producers (VASEP) and the Vietnamese State Agency for Technological Innovation (SATI). FYI, FXA Group is a leading provider of enterprise traceability solutions across multiple segments of the food industry.

The impact of regulations

Japanese regulations require full traceability for domestic beef and for other foods, Japan's Food Sanitation Law requests, but does not require that each operator keep records to identify all their suppliers and customers -- one-step-back and one-step-forward -- record. This request is similar to Article 18 of the European Union's EC Regulation 178/2002. However, in Japan this type of record keeping is only recommended and is not compulsory. On the other hand, Japanese regulations do require labeling of the place of origin for fresh food and minimally processed food, not only at retail level but also at wholesale level. However, while origin labeling itself is required, a record-keeping system to verify origin area by providing documentation such as delivery slips and/or invoices is only recommended, not legally required, per the Food Sanitation Law.

Regulations designed to improve food safety in the US are becoming more stringent as food safety incidences increase. The Bioterrorism Act of 2002 requires chain of custody information and product data for the company that shipped the product and for the company that the product shipped to and the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2010 affirms these traceability requirements. Additional voluntary guidelines have been published by GS1 that recommends best practice approaches for identifying and tracking food from farm to consumer sale.

Best practices for full traceability - guidelines

The latest guide for applying traceability standards in the U.S., Traceability for Seafood: U.S. Implementation Guide provides minimum requirements and best-practice recommendations for tracking seafood through the supply chain from farms to processors, suppliers, distributors, retailers and foodservice operators. The guide was developed by NFI, GS1 US and U.S. seafood industry companies, and may be applied globally. The following picture, taken from the seafood traceability guide, illustrates how critical events in the seafood lifecycle process are tracked.

Exposing this kind of information to consumers, on demand, seems to be a reasonable way to allay fears, whether warranted or not, about food safety. It also provides every trading partner in the chain an opportunity to demonstrate their attention to issues including sustainable seafood harvesting and geographic/biologic risks.


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