– When Amy Kircher was a kid growing up on a dairy farm in rural Minnesota, strawberries were a sure sign of spring. The red berries would be in her Easter basket and it meant growing conditions were right.

In an increasingly global food system, Kircher’s kids can munch strawberries all year long. But as the food market grows worldwide, tainted links in the food chain have become an increasing threat. From a bad batch of peanut butter that poisons a nursing home resident in Minnesota to a few genetically modified corn kernels that contaminated the contents of a China-bound Cargill freighter, tracking threats to food has become a way of life.

Kircher knows firsthand the importance of tracking food “from farm to fork.” She directs the National Center for Food Protection and Defense (NCFPD) based at the University of Minnesota since 2004 and helps lead a national movement called “food traceability” that is designed to head off trouble.

Among the players joining the U’s center in the effort are food giants like Cargill and public health officials. A global center focusing on traceability emerged in 2013 in a public-private partnership. The Global Food Traceability Center is currently working with a $1.3 million grant to improve traceability in seafood.

Food traceability is a complicated, entangled process. Following food can mean dealing with several countries that have different rules and regulations, tracing transportation and encountering multiple languages. It’s no small task, Kircher said, but there are definite reasons to care.

“Being really transparent and knowing where ingredients are bought and sold … knowing that whole supply chain is really important,” she said.

Traceability offers a way to ensure a product is safe. It can mitigate problems and stop tainted food outbreaks quickly. Not only do tainted food outbreaks present health risks to consumers, they also produce economic hits to food corporations. That gives everyone from the farmer in the field to the customer in the grocery store a stake in food safety, Kircher explained.

Traceability allows those in industry to avoid blanket statements like, “don’t eat any spinach,” and instead point to a very specific harvest of a food product.

“I think we all would agree there is still more work to be done,” Kircher said. “There are a lot of complexities in food in that it’s a global food system. The dynamic nature of food around the world is constantly changing.”

Minnesota’s grub

Minnesota is home to thousands of farms and ranches, as well as some of the nation’s major global food companies, including Cargill, Land O’Lakes, General Mills and Hormel. According to the Minnesota Department of Agriculture the state exported $8 billion in agricultural products in 2013, making it third in the nation.

Minnetonka-based Cargill, one of the world’s largest private companies, has links to just about every aspect of food production and distribution. The company has invested in the NCFPD and International Association for Food Protection (IAFP). Food traceability helps ensure the reliability of Cargill products, said Mike Robach, Cargill’s vice president of corporate food safety, quality and regulatory affairs.

“Knowing where crops originate, where things are processed, where ingredients come from are important for us to assess risk, identify hazards and put in appropriate control programs so we can assure the safety, quality and integrity of the foods we bring to the consumer,” Robach said.

Food traceability groups are also a wave of the future because they generate ideas for improving the handling and tracking of products. When food on a table in Minnesota can come from just about anywhere by just about any means, setting common, reliable standards that can be applied internationally matters.

“It’s not just about Cargill’s supply chain,” Robach said. “It’s really about the global food supply chain.”

Global center emerges

In 2013, with financial support from Cargill and NCFPD, the Chicago-based Institute of Food Technology launched the Global Food Traceability Center (GFTC) in Washington, DC. Its mission is to examine traceability issues around the world.

Tejas Bhatt, the global food center’s director as of July 1, said companies should look at traceability as something that benefits them more than something that burdens them.

GFTC will hold a conference July 11 in Chicago, “Profiting From Traceability,” to try to change the mind-set that traceability is just a cost of doing business. Bhatt said traceability offers companies better market access, improved risk reduction and more operating efficiency. It allows public and private interests to not only catch tainted food outbreaks but also to promote things like lasting food supplies.

“We really don’t know where our food comes from; that is the first step,” Bhatt said. “It’s not just negative issues, it’s the positive things we are doing like better sustainability, better use of energy and water. We can’t prove any of the good things without traceability.”

Bhatt got interested in traceability when working with food bioterrorism in 2003. Since then, tainted food outbreaks resulting from heightened globalization have propelled interest in traceability. This led to the founding of GFTC.

“You cannot solve a problem you don’t know you have,” Bhatt said. “So the first step is to accept that you have a problem and to do that you have to have better visibility in the supply chain, which you can only get through traceability.”

Cargill’s Robach noted that while industry works hard on traceability, technological solutions could make it easier. That’s where GFTC comes in and that’s why Cargill invests in the food group’s work.

Currently GFTC is working on standardizing traceability technology globally because the center discovered that many individual companies have established their own systems, which often use different terminology.

When one company uses “batch” and another uses “lot” to describe the same food product, Bhatt said, consumers may be confused.

GFTC’s two-year standardizing project, which is just getting off the ground, aims to have a common model that will help alleviate confusion along the supply chain.

But when some areas of the world still must use paper and pen to trace food, the center knows that there are challenges.

Consumer’s responsibility

Bhatt said Cargill and NCFPD have provided “invaluable” support of GFTC.

“It is common knowledge in the public health space that Minnesota is pretty good at solving outbreaks related to food,” Bhatt said “We wanted to learn how they do it and why they have a higher success rate than the rest of the country.”

One challenge traceability interest groups face is relaying data to consumers without overwhelming them. However, with the help of scanning codes on smartphones and other kinds of technology, Bhatt thinks the future is bright.

He makes it clear that consumers are in the driver’s seat.

“Consumers have the right to demand greater transparency from industry and they will not get transparency without traceability,” he said. “Consumer demands will drive change and the more vocal they are, the quicker change will come.”