Insights into Advancing Seafood Traceability—A (Snowy) Update

When the howling blizzard dropped two feet of snow on Boston, the resultant large drifts blocking the sidewalks were a perfect metaphor for our Seafood Expo North America panel topic that day: the barriers to seafood traceability technology adoption…and the strategies that can overcome them.
Our colleagues from the Seafood Traceability Collaboration, along with special guest, Roxanne Nanninga from Thai Union, kicked off the session by sharing stories from the field regarding the stuck points they encountered and the potential strategies for combating such challenges in seafood traceability technology adoption.
Challenge: So much data, so little time
Collecting good fisheries-dependent data is not always easy, and the process is different depending on where you are in the supply chain. “Data collection at the point of harvest tends to be the most challenging,” noted Alanna Gisondo, Traceability Program Manager at FishWise. “The trip from ocean to port of landing is often a black box.”
Solution: Develop a Master KDE list
Through their close work with industry partners, FishWise has found that one way to focus data collection efforts is to articulate goals and identify the specific data that is needed to reach those goals.  Creating a master Key Data Element (KDE) list is a big step to help companies define their data needs. “Success come when leaders are able to identify key goals and questions, unraveling the data needed to reach their objectives.”
Challenge: Quantifying risk is hard, contributing to a lack of tangible ROI from traceability 
“We aren’t in the insurance business, we are in seafood. So it is hard to conceptualize these things.” 
This is how Thomas Burke, Food Traceability Scientist with the Global Food Traceability Center, summed up one of the biggest challenges to faster adoption of traceability technology in seafood: without appreciation for the way traceability technology can mitigate risk, the return on investment (ROI) is difficult to see.  And, a lack of evidence of ROI slows uptake.   Another component of the ROI challenge is an apparent lack of consumer demand. Burke shared that “Consumers do want to know where their food is coming from, but they don’t know how to articulate that desire or how to vet the information once a product is in front of them.”  This makes it hard for companies to garner price premiums for traceable product, as the demand appears to be non-existent.
Solution: Focus on Food Safety, Especially Recalls
Fact: Fish is number one in foodborne outbreaks.  Thus, food safety is a big deal for the seafood industry.  “The more traceable your product, the easier it is to recall and trace the problem to its source,” said Burke. So reframing traceability as a way to insure your company in the case of a recall can be an effective strategy.
Burke reminded us that consumers are only just now eating spinach at the same levels as prior to a health scare from an E. coli outbreak twelve years ago.  And evidently, consumers don’t distinguish among brands when it comes to this kind of stuff. “The whole produce sector suffered. When one goes down, they all go down.”
Sounds like a great reason for some pre-competitive efforts to adopt full-chain traceability.
Challenge:  Control and access to data
David Schorr, Senior Manager with WWF, helped provide insight into one of the very understandable roots of industry reluctance to engage with traceability: control of data.  “In the past,” noted Schorr, “traceability was like a game of telephone, with information passed from one actor to the next in the chain.”  In this system, data may have been slow and full of errors, but, it remained within the control of each company.  Now, recent technologies upload data to the cloud or manage data through a series of data access agreements.  It’s a new landscape and one that poses challenges that Schorr notes must be addressed simultaneously to achieve full-chain traceability.
Solution: Build the architecture for multiple systems to talk 
The Global Dialogue for Seafood Traceability is an industry-led initiative, facilitated by WWF and GFTC,  to design the specifications that will allow different data systems to seamlessly communicate with one another. With participation from 35 companies across multiple geographies and nodes in the supply chain, this effort focuses on making data transparency and  interoperability a reality for the seafood sector.
Challenge: Building demand for traceable seafood
Thai Union’s Chicken of the Sea banner traceability program is called Can Tracker, a consumer facing traceability tool. Each can has its own code, and, explained Thai Union’s, North America Sustainability Director Roxanne Nanninga, if you go onto the website you can find information including fishing vessel, FAO fishing area, and gear type.  It’s a very sophisticated system, and yet, Nanninga says, she is stuck.
“While each individual can has its own production code, they are mixed into different orders when leaving the distribution center—the distribution center would need to scan each production code in order to maintain that tracking detail to the customer.”
Right now, even though they have a great system in place, the data is not maintained downstream in the supply chain because the distribution center is unable or unmotivated to track production code information into orders.  Without this requirement being placed on the distribution centers by retail and foodservice customers, Thai Union can’t enforce the added time, labor, or technology needed to properly trace products through these stages in the supply chain. Ultimately, the end consumers have the ability to access the information from the cans they purchase, which was our primary goal. But when our customers ask for reports of where we source one particular product it is very difficult to convey the level of detail they seek.
Solution: Build data linkages and the value proposition of traceable seafood among trading partners
Retailer and food service companies need to work together to make sure their systems can transfer data between all participants in their supply chains and that the necessary training and technology is provided. Furthermore, marketing is a key driver in traceability uptake, as is a shared vision. Companies need to engage their trading partners and create an appealing value proposition for each node in order to ensure information is moved through the full chain. Doing this from the start of a project can increase successful design of traceability implementation programs that reduce the risk of data loss due to lack of engagement by a single node.
Breakout Session  – Mapping & Addressing Stuck Points
After hearing from our panelists, we broke out into working groups to map out what participants have seen and experienced themselves on the journey to traceability adoption.  Although the potential roadblocks may at first seem overwhelming, we were able to identify some key challenge categories:
  • When researching traceability systems,efforts are frequently hampered by confusion about what a traceability system is and why it would be worth implementing.
  • Once stakeholders are ready to commit to a traceability system, they then face a new set of questions, mostly  how to finance the project and which technology would be a best fit.
  • Finally, engaging a supply chain to implement a full-chain traceability system has its own challenges, centered around lack of regulations/standards, outdated facilities, and untrained staff.
The good news is that resources exist to address these points of challenge. Below is a table detailing the multitude of stuck points we gathered through our breakout session and some of the tools that have been been developed by the Seafood Traceability Collaboration that can address these specific barriers. These tools along with additional resources can be found in the Seafood Industry Traceability Toolkit.

Published May 17, 2018