The Importance of Material Tracing

Traceability on a processing or production line is incredibly important, especially when it comes food products, where having the ability to track every ingredient down to the source is crucial to the health and safety of the consumers.

Timothy S. Matheny, P.E., president of ECS Solutions.
Timothy S. Matheny, P.E., president of ECS Solutions.

As parts of the country begin to move out of COVID-19 shutdowns, we have been hearing about “contact tracing” as a tool for containing a secondary spread of the disease. Material, lot tracing, or traceability has been part of producing safe food products for a long time. The concepts behind contact tracing and material tracing are similar.

The US food industry should be rightfully proud and the US consumer properly thankful that behind the scenes, out of sight and out of mind, tremendous efforts are being made to ensure food safety.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs) require “traceability to the source.” Establishing traceability to the source for all intended and unintended ingredients of a product in a consumer’s grocery cart relies on each producer or manufacturer that contributed to that product to have and be able to rapidly retrieve traceability data for its products.

To enable tracing, food ingredients and final products are produced and packaged in “lots.” For example, a lot may be the amount of product produced by a certain producer on a certain line during a certain day. Each producer tracks the lot numbers of any ingredients that are used in the production of any final product lots.

Confused? Let’s investigate that bottle of salad dressing you picked up the other day. That bottle has a lot code on the label. The dressing manufacturer can use that lot code to pull up a list of the ingredients, the producer of the ingredients and the producer’s lot codes for the exact ingredients that went into that bottle. A bottle of salad dressing may have 10-15 ingredients. Those ingredients may have ingredients. Each producer down the line—all the way back to the source—can do the same. That is “traceability to the source.”

If you are thinking, “Wow, that’s a lot of data unlocked by one number on my dressing bottle label that I never noticed before,” you are exactly right. If you are thinking, “Wow, how would we ever collect and manage data for contact tracing and who would responsibly manage that data,” you are also right. But try, if you can, to refocus on food material tracing.

The data each producer must collect, store, and be able to retrieve can be gathered manually, semi-automatically, or automatically. It can be stored in boxes of paper or in a relational database. Incomplete or inaccurate data can create tremendous liability. Activities required to collect, store, and retrieve data add to cost-of-production, so it needs to be performed efficiently. Across the industry, there are a myriad of tools and methods for collecting, storing, and retrieving traceability data accurately and efficiently.

When building new or performing a significant upgrade to an existing production line or process cell, collection and storage activities can be tightly integrated into the operating controls for maximum accuracy, minimal cost, and minimal operator interference. The system can integrate fully with the plant’s ecosystem including inventory databases that contain manufacturer and lot information. Collected information is stored with batch records to be easily retrieved with off-the-shelf reporting tools. Operator interaction might involve some barcode scanning and/or verification. Automated weighing and dispensing increase the level of integration possible.

Often older systems utilize paper forms or forms on a computer screen. Essentially manual systems are prone to human inaccuracy and consume valuable operator time. Such systems were or are less expensive to implement but are often not less expensive over the project lifecycle.

When a targeted upgrade is done to a line or process cell, collection activities are often semi-automatic. A semi-automated system interacts with the operators by providing clear instructions for activities that need to be performed, such as specifying where to locate containers from the appropriate ingredient lot. All activities are electronically journaled, including amounts of ingredients consumed, either automatically or by operator entry. Instructions can be provided for intermediate materials, such as kits, as well as for finished products. Semi-automated systems can also interact with the plant ecosystem, such as the enterprise resource planning system, to receive work orders, execute them and report material consumed and finished goods produced.

Traceability, whether food ingredient tracing or contact tracing, is incredibly important for the health of people living in our communities and nation. Tracing food product ingredients to the source requires detailed collection, storage, and retrieval of accurate and complete data. Producers that accomplish this accurately and efficiently have a competitive advantage. How are you handling traceability? How can you reduce cost and increase accuracy?

Timothy S. Matheny, P.E., is president of ECS Solutions, a certified member of the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA). He is also author of a paper on model-based control, presented to the ISA Food and Pharmaceutical Industry Division in 2014. To obtain a copy of Matheny’s paper, or for more information about ECS Solutions, visit its profile on the CSIA Industrial Automation Exchange.