Traceability becomes food safety technology trend in EU

In the dispute over genetically modified foods between the United States and the European Union, one sticking point is Europe's requirement that all GM foods be labeled and traced back to their origin. While the U.S. views traceability as a novel and, in some cases, bad concept, the European Union sees it as an essential element of food production and a way to assure consumers of food safety.

A good example is Tracemeal S.A., a company based in Geneva, Switzerland, that supplies soymeal to salmon breeders in northern Europe. Tracemeal buys soymeal from a Brazilian soy processor who contracts with farmers to grow certified non-genetically modified soybeans. After processing, the soymeal, which is identity preserved at every stage, is shipped to a port in Denmark, which is dedicated to receiving only non-GM soy. The soymeal then goes to fish feed producers where it is made into feed and given to salmon. Finally, the salmon are shipped to Japan where they are cooked and served fresh, just 72 hours after shipment from Europe. The entire chain-from the salmon dinner in Japan back to the soybean seed in Brazil-can be traced.

The extent of the traceability system even surprises Tracemeal's president, Bernt Antonsen. "This is extremely long and deep traceability," he say. "I never would have imagined it would have gone this far."

Traceability laws

While concern over GM foods is a factor, the demand for traceability extends beyond GMOs. Pat Cox, President of the European Parliament, calls traceability "one of the central pillars of the new food safety policy in the EU."

Europe's main traceability efforts and regulations have focused on animal feed, which has been the source of several food scares, such as the Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), "Mad Cow" crisis. "Feed is a big issue," says Lia Jennissen, project manager of animal feed at SGS, a non-GMO certification company based in the Netherlands. "It's the beginning of the food chain, and if anything goes wrong there, it has an enormous impact on recalls from retail stores."

The European Parliament has passed a series of regulations establishing traceability. In 2000, legislation was passed requiring traceability and labeling of beef products. In February 2002 Parliament passed regulation Number 178/2002, which established the European Food Safety Authority and principles of food law.

The regulation states "The traceability of food, feed, food-producing animals…shall be established at all stages of production, processing, and distribution."The regulation will become law in 2005. This past November, the European Union's Agriculture Council and Environment Council agreed to establish stringent regulations to label and trace GM food and feed. "The need for traceability has crystallized into real and active regulation," says Richard Werran, a representative with Cert ID, a non-GMO certification firm based in the United Kingdom. "It's here to stay and will be the way business is done in Europe."

Traceability provides greater assurance to consumers by requiring transparency in food and feed production. "Consumers want to know how and where food is produced, and traceability is a key enabler in that respect," says Ronan Loftus, business development director, IdentiGen, a DNA analysis laboratory based in Ireland. As an example, a French court recently ruled that restaurants serving beef must clearly show on menus the origin of the cattle used to make the beef.

Tracing GMOs

As a result of food scares and the need to allay consumer fears, Europe's regulators have extended traceability to GM food and feed. Some food and agricultural groups in the United States say that Europe has established traceability rules as a barrier to trade, a claim that angers Europeans. "It has nothing to do with trade barriers; it's complete and utter rubbish," says Werran.

European consumers want GM food labeled and traced and major food retailers, such as Tesco and ASDA, based in the United Kingdom, and Carrefour, based in France, are responding. These companies have eliminated GM ingredients from their house brand foods and are requiring meat suppliers to raise animals on non-GM feed. "More and more animal feed companies are producing non-GMO because the retailers are asking for that," says Jennissen.

Since the BSE crisis, animal feed producers have used soymeal as a protein source, which has increased opportunities for companies such as Tracemeal that have traceability systems to address GMO concerns. Tracemeal supplies fully traced, certified non-GM soymeal from Brazil to nine fish feed producers in northern Europe.

Antonsen says feed producers will pay a 5 to 10 percent premium over commodity prices for fully traced, identity preserved non-GM soymeal. In turn, feed producers that breed salmon can earn a 20 to 25 percent premium in Japan for salmon labeled as identity preserved and non-GMO. Antonsen says Europe's traceability rules will have a big impact in Europe and globally. "Every commodity will have to be traced," he says. "There will be a lot of logistics to get everyone up to speed, and it will be a rough ride."

According to Katrin Schröder, IP management at GeneScan Analytics GmbH, the traceability regulations are shifting the labeling criteria from detecting GMOs in the product to application of GMOs in the process. "The European food industry is looking for avenues how to comply so they won't have to label their products," she says. As an example, the regulations require that all food and feed ingredients produced from GMOs be labeled even if GMOs cannot be detected in the final product. In addition, products exported to Europe without a label will be assumed to be non-GMO and be subject to PCR tests by authorities. Products that test positive for GMOs will prompt an investigation and may result in refused shipments. Providing PCR test reports as proof that a product is non-GM won't be sufficient. "Authorities will want to look at traceability documentation," says Werran. "Exporters have to assume the worst possible case and have traceability in place."

Companies such as SGS, IdentiGEN, Cert ID, and GeneScan offer non-GMO certification services to verify companies' IP systems and help them comply with the new rules. Schröder says demand is increasing for such services, which focus more on suppliers in production countries such as Brazil and China. "The trend for European companies is to make their suppliers responsible to establish control programs," says Schröder.

U.S. perspective

In the United States, traceability is a fairly new concept and not as readily embraced, according to Dennis Strayer, president of Dennis Strayer & Associates, an IP consulting firm. "A segment of the food industry is against traceability," says Strayer. "They don't think we have the technology to do it, and that it would be too costly."

On the other hand, Phil Neff, business development manager at says U.S. food manufacturers are using traceability to emphasize a product's value-added nature. "Being able to offer traceability allows marketers to make claims and differentiate brands," he says. In addition, traceability systems can limit food recalls, which saves companies money. According to Neff, a key difference in the U.S. is that traceability is being dictated by the needs of the market and not by government regulators as in the EU.

As the dispute over traceability and other GMO issues escalates to a possible trade war, the U.S. would like Europe to back off on its traceability requirements, but it is not likely to happen. As Antonsen says, "We're at the point of no return on that."
(February 2003)