World Food Safety Day: UP researcher calls for high-tech food safety tracking

Posted on June 07, 2019

It takes just three or four days for a lamb chop to travel from a farm in the Northern Cape, via an abattoir, a wholesaler or meat packer, to a local butcher or retailer, and ultimately on to a plate in a city.

If that chop became unsafe to eat anywhere along the way, it is not just the health of the consumer that’s at risk; the reputation of the production process, the place of origin, and every business along the chain is on the line.

Today the globe celebrates World Food Safety Day for the first time. The United Nations and the World Health Organisation (WHO) adopted the day because, they say, food safety is “everyone’s business”.

Dr Danie Jordaan, Agricultural Economist at the University of Pretoria, agrees.

“We as consumers are dependent on a chain of interdependent businesses to bring food from farm to table. This means a food safety concern, like South Africa’s recent listeriosis outbreak, can have an explosive domino effect up and down the value chain, right from the farmer to your fridge.”

He’s just co-authored a study that shows how vulnerable the South African lamb chain may be if something goes wrong with food safety or quality. Jordaan’s study suggests it may be more useful for agribusiness managers and scholars to consider a chain’s vulnerability (also called “fragility”), rather than trying to predict the probability or impact of a food safety or quality incident.

One potential way to reduce the impact of food safety incidents is to use advanced technologies to record and track food along the supply chain in real time. Jordaan says that although there are pockets of excellence when it comes to food traceability in South Africa, the new frontier for businesses is part of the so-called fourth industrial revolution: using machines and the internet of things to track food products along the chain.

“This would allow us to find the source of a food safety breach much quicker, using forensically reliable data, says Jordaan. “At the push of a button, we could immediately trace where it came from, who handled it during which shift, and even which ingredients were used.”

He is currently pushing for more research into ways to improve traceability, and into which threats to the value chain could be mitigated through food tracking. Jordaan believes improved traceability will not only allow businesses to comply with government food safety regulations more easily, but will also boost stock management and coordination within the chain. Importantly, he adds, it will cultivate trust in the safety and authenticity of a food brand.

A Karoo farmer in his next life, Jordaan urges consumers to think about the origin and safety of food, and the people and businesses that ensure food arrives fresh, fast and safe to eat on our plates daily, like clockwork.

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