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Manitoba, IBM draft “digital passport” for food

Manitoba’s government and IBM have road-tested a pilot system to digitally trace food from the farm to the grocery cart, on their way to developing a provincial traceability program.

IBM Canada, which served as a project manager and consultant for the pilot, worked with the province as well as “more than 16” supply chain partners, the province said, including beef and pork producers, animal feed ingredient producers, feed manufacturers, farmers, processing plants, truckers and a retail grocery chain.

“Now that the proof of concept has been completed, we can look at implementing a traceability program that will help to assure the quality and safety of all consumer goods and also ensure that consumers — locally and across the country — feel confident in the products they consume,” Agriculture Minister Rosann Wowchuk said in a release Tuesday.

The project tracked data about product movement, animal history and characteristics, processing history and transportation data throughout the complete value chain, the province said.

Using Global Traceability Network (GTNet) software from Norwegian traceability firm TraceTracker, the pilot project showed it’s possible to securely, accurately gather and crunch data about a piece of meat from a variety of sources and share that information, at any step in the process, the province said.

GTNet allows trading partners to exchange “critical” product information so they can communicate key messages to customers and consumers. Ultimately, the province said, the system also can be used to provide messaging that can help reinforce consumers’ confidence in food products they buy.

“This successful test presents all participants with a number of avenues for innovation,” said Susan Wilkinson, an IBM Global Business Services traceability solutions executive based at Markham, Ont.

“One example is an organic food producer could offer consumers the equivalent of a ‘digital product passport’ to validate the authenticity of their statement the product is produced naturally.”

IBM said in the province’s release that it surveyed over 1,600 consumers in 2007 and found nearly 70 per cent expressed a low overall level of trust in the claims branded food products make about their environmental impact and health benefits.

Almost half of consumers were concerned about safety, and nearly two out of every five said they buy different brands today because of these concerns, IBM said.

The province said a wide scope was “essential” for the project, noting dozens of companies are involved in the production of just a single ribeye steak.

Consumer product recalls, from spinach and chocolate to peanut butter, illustrate the importance of access to timely information, when needed, at any point along the supply chain, for safety and quality assurance reasons, the province said.

In an article Monday about the project, Dr. Wayne Lees, Manitoba’s chief veterinary officer, told the Canadian Press (CP) news agency that expanding on the success of the pilot would mean getting the various links in the value chain to move from a paper trail to a digital one.

CP quoted IBM’s Wilkinson as saying much of the information in the food supply chain is still kept via paper and pen and is thus “not accessible in an emergency and also subject to error and loss.”

But if all participants took part in a computerized traceability system, food safety agencies responding to a disease outbreak could then quickly learn what other food products might be tainted, and get the recall process underway.

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