A New Look at Traceability: UK Perspective
By Matt Brown
The World Trade Organization estimates that food accounts for $1.49 billion dollars in international trade. This flow of products across borders means food producers and retailers must understand and constantly monitor food safety requirements and ingredient traceability for both domestic and imported products. Food produced or sold in other countries may be subject to quite different laws than in the U.S.
In the United Kingdom (UK), the Food Standards Agency (FSA) provides a similar role and scope of regulation to the food industry and consumers as the U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Food and Drug Administration do in the United States. The foundation of UK food traceability laws are rooted in the Food Safety Act, which was implemented by Parliament in 1990.
In addition to the 1990 act, the European Commission passed General Food Law Regulation 178/2002 in 2002. This legislation, under Article 18, addresses food traceability requirements and requires food companies to keep records of food, food substances and food-producing animals supplied to their business, as well as other businesses to which their products have been supplied.
Withdrawal vs. Recall in the UK
The UK food regulations draw the same distinction between "withdrawals" and "recalls" as the U.S. When a producer removes products from the market, which is referred to as a withdrawal. Recalls are when consumers are asked to return (or destroy) products they have already purchased.
UK food businesses are required to recall or withdraw products from the market that are not in compliance with regulations and notify authorities that such an action is underway. They must also be ready to provide information that will assist authorities with tracking and tracing where those products went.
Section 7 of the Food Safety Act specifies that an offense involves creating food that is injurious to consumer’s health by adding an ingredient during manufacture, removing or modifying an existing ingredient in the product, or doing something during processing that makes the product harmful to human consumption.
Sections 14 and 15 of the Food Safety Act also address requirements of not selling products of inferior quality or misrepresenting the nature of the product. Penalties for noncompliance can involve fines and/or jail time of up to 6 months or up to 2 years, depending on the type of court that issues the conviction.
The specifics of traceability under Article 18 of the General Food Law Regulation178/2002 require food producers to:
- Identify all suppliers of food, food-producing animals and any other ingredient that are (or are intended to be) a component of their products, and
- Identify the businesses to which they have supplied products.
Producers must be able to provide this information to authorities on demand. In addition, while the legislation indicates that "one step forward and one step backward" might be sufficient, in practice producers should consider that "traceability information" will need to include:
- Address of the customer or supplier,
- Nature and quantity of products, and
- Date of the transaction and delivery.
Producers really should record batch or lot numbers and/or expiration dates as well since that can be useful information to expedite the process.
Just as with U.S. requirements, an exact length of time for maintaining records is not specified in the law and so producers in the UK need to make their own decisions about how long their records need to exist given the type and expiration dates of the products they sell.
Interestingly, Article 18 does not require the concept of "internal" traceability, where manufacturers track specific lots of ingredients as they are blended into batches of products. There are some specific types of food production, such as beef processing, where internal traceability may be required and/or highly encouraged to help prevent issues with recalls or withdrawals. If businesses or products involve the processing of meat or seafood, specific requirements for these sectors in the UK should be investigated.
Retailers are not required to keep records of specific products sold to individual consumers because they are not considered the "producer" under this law. However, if they sell to a third-party that then sells or provides food to consumers, such as a caterer or venue, then the retailer will want to maintain traceability records.
Potential Consequences of Food Recalls
As a large market, the UK is not immune to widespread food recalls like are seen in the U.S. In August, more than 700,000 imported eggs were recalled from the UK market due to pesticide contamination. The eggs originated from Belgium and Holland and many were used as ingredients in sandwich fillings, salads and quiches. Just as how recalls typically play out in the U.S., it started with just 21,000 eggs and quickly grew to encompass more than three times that amount.
Courts in the UK have shown a willingness to impose jail time for extreme or malicious violations, similar to the Peanut Corporation of America scandal in the U.S. where the company owner was sentenced to 28 years in prison. In 2016, a UK restaurant owner was sentenced to six years in jail for using a less expensive nut powder that contained peanuts in curries that killed one allergic customer and sent another to the hospital.
Stamps of Approval
Food producers looking to sell their products in the UK may want to take a look at some of the UK certification and labeling organizations such as Red Tractor, Fair to Nature, LEAF Marque and the Marine Stewardship Council. These organizations may impose stricter stands on products than the laws require, but also provide greater initial consumer trust and confidence to brands that are new to the marketplace.
While selling products in the UK market may require some slightly different requirements than in the U.S., overall it should feel very familiar to producers. Keeping a tight watch on ingredients, suppliers and processing will always be a good idea, regardless of the market.
As technology advances to help with record keeping, it is getting even easier to move to a fully paperless process, which helps speed reaction times if a situation arises or simply to conduct more frequent “drills” as practice for audits. The right technology can also make worrying about traceability and recalls a slightly less fraught process for management and staff by making the information easy to gather and evaluate.
A good starting point for additional information about the laws in the UK is the Food Standards Agency website: food.gov.uk.
Matt Brown is the CEO of Wherefour, Inc., a food traceability/ERP software company.