The food supply chain has become increasingly complicated and much longer, with supply chains for some products consisting of more than one hundred links. In the fresh produce industry in particular, products are transported thousands of miles to meet consumer needs. Unfortunately, the method for tracking supply chain events has historically been pen and paper, resulting in data that is often recorded improperly or simply does not follow the product. An effective solution to this dearth of information is a chain of custody which identifies the origin of a product, everyone who has touched a product, every place the product has been, and all associated records, captured in a way that allows for easy retrieval.
A chain of custody typically records information about any product that is extremely valuable, perishable, or, if contaminated, would result in serious consequences. Examples are food, pharmaceuticals, blood, automotive parts, vehicles, or precious minerals. A chain of custody systematically identifies a unit of production, tracks its location, and describes any treatments or transformations at all stages of production, processing, and distribution. The trail of custodians and owners is documented, and transactions are validated at each level of the supply chain. This type of validation is helpful, for example, in segregating organic from conventionally grown produce. Consumer confidence in organic certification is extremely important, so the ability to identify every point along the supply chain is crucial. The ability to distinguish between non-certified and certified seafood (and the ability to trace certified seafood back to certified sources) is also made possible with documenting custodians and validating transactions.
Utilizing a chain of custody program helps stakeholders to identify the source of and develop solutions to issues affecting product delivery and quality. When it is determined that a widespread outbreak is the result of a foodborne contamination, food recalls are typically in order. However, they are very costly because of the difficulty in isolating a contaminant’s origin. For the restaurant industry, the financial burden is nearly $90 billion annually. One restaurant may spend upwards of $2M in a single recall. According to Angela Fields, a subject matter expert with the FDA’s Coordinated Outbreak Response and Evaluation Network, increased traceability offers more thorough root cause investigation, which is necessary to avoid blanket recalls. A chain of custody helps to expedite targeted product recalls, enabling a faster response, limiting the amount of product that must be destroyed, and preventing further illness.
Chain of custody systems create more supply chain accountability, encouraging individuals to follow proper procedures for product handling, and to think twice before stealing or committing fraud. Improved transparency resulting from chain of custody also helps to protect and monitor the integrity of insurance claims. By enabling participants at every level to input information, chain of custody systems provides stakeholders the data they need - in real time.
The goal of a chain of custody system is end-to-end traceability, which follows a product through every stage of production, processing, and distribution. For perishable products like food and pharmaceuticals, traceability also provides benefits such as better inventory management, longer shelf life and better order management. The ability to trace a shipment as it moves through the supply chain, from one custodian to the next, provides the visibility stakeholders need to identify problems that could affect consumer confidence. With the uncertainty of today’s supply chain, having an effective chain of custody system is not only a clever idea, but a requirement for effective handling of perishable commodities.