KANSAS CITY, MISSOURI, U.S. — A strong traceability system for ingredients may prove crucial in more than just food safety recalls. Such a system may further cement the credibility of organic or non-bioengineered/non-GMO claims. Traceability hurdles, however, may come in the form of complex supply chains for ingredients, including cocoa, that are associated with small holder farms. New technologies, including blockchain, are proving useful.

Potential benefits of traceability systems could be inferred from results in the International Food Information Council Foundation’s 2018 Food & Health Survey. When asked about important factors when purchasing food, more than 20% ranked “knowing where the food comes from” as “very important,” which compared to less than 10% saying “not at all important.” When asked about labeling influence on purchasing behavior, nearly 30% listed organic when shopping for foods and beverages, which was just above non-GMO. Natural and no added hormones or steroids were the most popular answers, each coming in at nearly 40%.

Icon Foods, which works with sweeteners, sweetening systems, hydrocolloids and fibers, finds it challenging to trace organic items, said Thom King, president and chief executive officer of the Portland, Oregon, U.S.-based company.

“Great care has to be put into vetting suppliers,” he said. “We have found in the case of erythritol, a polyol sweetening compound, that there is more organic product available than there is organic corn glucose substrate to create it. At present, short of each importer and manufacturer putting strict supplier document requirements in place, there is no true way to absolutely guarantee authenticity of food ingredients unless each manufacturer is well vetted and third-party testing is put in place prior to releasing these ingredients from Q.C. (quality control) holds.”

Icon Foods is implementing a field-to-factory distributed ledger that is a blockchain system. IBM, Armonk, New York, U.S., defines blockchain as a shared, immutable ledger for recording the history of transactions. Icon Foods wants to have all its suppliers in its proprietary system by 2020.

“Our blockchain system makes it possible to quickly trace food products to their source for enhanced food authenticity and safety,” King said. “The entry in the distributed ledger that is created creates an immutable trail from field to factory. We have found that some of our competitors are nervous about this because it requires 100% full transparency.”

One might ask what would prevent buyers from going directly to manufacturers that are revealed in the transparency of the blockchain. If that happens, the blockchain is broken, and they no longer are protected, King said.

“With companies like Walmart and Amazon demanding blockchain transparency with their vendors, the real value lies in the blockchain, and this value supersedes whatever savings they might see by circumventing their suppliers,” he said.

Bunge, Ltd., White Plains, New York, U.S., uses Centerfield, a partnership between the company, growers and food manufacturers that promotes supply chain transparency and sustainable agriculture.

“Farm-level data is collected on Centerfield crops, which include conventional and non-GMO corn and rice,” said Mark Stavro, senior director of marketing. “The data (are) then aggregated and shared with participating growers and food customers who are interested in learning more about their supply chain.”

Besides rice and corn ingredients, Bunge also sources its ancient grains and many oil products from farmers the company knows.

“Global commodities can be difficult to trace, as they are generally managed with bulk handling systems,” Stavro said. “For example, much of the quinoa in the U.S. comes from different countries across South America where it is sold by brokers who fail to maintain the origins of the grains and often blend their supply. However, increasing consumer demands have led to more effective segregation capabilities.”

Cargill, Minneapolis, Minnesota, U.S., runs a Cargill Cocoa Promise program the company said seeks to improve the lives of cocoa farmers and their communities and, in doing so, secure the future of cocoa and chocolate.

“When considering the remote areas in which cocoa is grown and the millions of farmers that grow cocoa beans, one can start to envision the challenges that come along with achieving traceability within the cocoa sector,” said Suzanne Uittenbogaard, value chain manager for Cargill. “Improving cocoa traceability means overcoming complex supply chain obstacles. Cocoa is sourced from millions of small holder farmers in small villages, transported across the globe in mass quantities, and manufactured in a continuous production process. All these variables make traceability of cocoa a complex task, but Cargill Cocoa & Chocolate is committed to navigating and strengthening under the Cargill Cocoa Promise.”

Cargill Cocoa & Chocolate has invested in technology and cloud-based systems to accelerate traceability capabilities.

“New technologies have opened the window to greater insight into our cocoa supply chain, which can play a role in supporting farmers to achieve greater efficiencies and improved livelihoods,” Uittenbogaard said.

Today, 85% of Cargill’s sustainable cocoa is sourced through the company’s direct-sourcing network.

“Looking toward the future, we have established a goal of 100% farmer-to-factory traceability of our cocoa beans by 2030, meaning we are working toward sourcing, manufacturing and marketing 100% sustainable cocoa and chocolate ingredients and making traceability the standard in our direct-sourced cocoa supply chain by 2030,” Uittenbogaard said.

Ingredion, Inc., Westchester, Illinois, U.S., uses Truetrace, an in-house identity preservation/traceability system, for non-bioengineered/non-GMO products in the United States and Canada. Truetrace allows Ingredion to trace ingredients throughout the manufacturing process from seed planted in the field to delivery of the finished product to a customer.

“While designed to ensure non-GMO identity preservation throughout the supply chain, the Truetrace program also allows Ingredion to track raw materials used to manufacture ingredients back to the farms and fields used to produce those raw materials,” said Andrew Utterback, manager of commodities purchasing for Ingredion.

Three years ago, Ingredion began working with a third-party agriculture software company to digitize the paperwork process for the Truetrace program.

“This allowed the documentation process to go from paper maps and paper questionnaires to an online tool that allows producers to leverage the precision ag software programs inherent in their operations,” Utterback said. “Instead of handwriting or filling out web forms to provide planting and harvest data, growers can now upload info via thumb drives to streamline the documentation process. The new platform integrated precision ag sharing for more technologically advanced growers while also easing the burden on the less advanced grower by streamlining the process for data submission to Ingredion.”