Tips for Tracking Food from Source to Shelf

How do you track food supplies from source to the shop shelf?


That's one of the many questions posed on, an active online community of sustainability professionals. We regularly contribute articles to 2Degrees, and occasionally chime in on the discussion boards. When we saw the question above about sustainable supply chains, traceability, and the food and beverage industry, we just had to weigh in on the discussion. Here's what SSC President Jennifer Woofter had to say: 

We work with several food companies and I can tell you that there are a few things to consider before you choose an approach, such as:

1. What are you trying to measure? It's really important to develop your KPIs first (even a draft version), and then start looking at the supply chain. Otherwise, the available data and data systems for tracking get too complicated. We have found that, in general, focusing on 5-7 metrics to begin with is best. 

2. How complicated is your supply chain? How many steps does it take to get back to the farm level? How many different suppliers for a single product? How effectively can you trace your supply chain? (For example, it is much easier to track an artisanal product (e.g. steak from a local farm) that you purchase directly from a single farm, as compared to a commodity item (e.g. wheat or corn) that is being aggregated, milled, processed, and packaged before it gets to you). It may help to prioritize your tracking so that you can focus your efforts on the most important ingredients -- for example: dairy and fresh produce (which tend to have a more direct route from farm to table).

3. What kind of data do you already have? (For example, do you know your 2nd and 3rd Tier suppliers?) And what kind of relationship do you have with your Tier 1 suppliers? (Are they likely to willingly work with you to push your data requests back through their own supply chains?) You may find that it's most effective to test a supply chain initiative with your best supplier to develop a "lessons learned" profile before expanding the program.

4. How are you going to use the data? Nothing is more frustrating than spending a ton of time and money gathering and analyzing data just to have it sit on the shelf. Before you develop a program, be clear about how the results of your analysis will impact decision-making. Is this effort about communicating results to the customer? About finding transportation efficiencies? Will you drop suppliers that don't participate? Will you give a price premium to suppliers that do participate? Be very, VERY clear about why you are doing the project and what outcomes you expect to get. That helps everyone along the value chain understand their role more clearly.

(And there are lots of software tools, mapping techniques, and consultants that can help you get where you want to be. But I find that the biggest mistake that people make in these initiatives is by not taking a big step back at the beginning in order to determine the right scope, goals, and outcomes for the project. Once you do that, the next step is to develop a program that ensures accountability throughout the supply chain. For example, if you are trying to track GM/toxins, you will want to develop a list of chemicals of concern, then look at 1) do your suppliers have a policy not to use them, 2) are there appropriate programs in place to ensure that the policy is enforced, 3) is there an oversite (testing/compliance) process in place to ensure appropriate program execution, and 4) does the CEO of each supplier in the chain of custody personally sign off on the guarantee that the product-to-date is GM/toxin free?)

If you'd like more information about sustainability in food and agriculture supply chains, contact us! Not ready for a conversation? Download our white paper on sustainable agriculture.