Canada must improve its food tracing system if it is to be considered among the best in the world and realize economic benefits, according to a new study from the University of Guelph.

The study by researchers at U of G and the Global Food Traceability Center in Washington, D.C., analyzed the food tracking systems of several countries, including the United States and nations in Europe, South America and Asia. Systems in European countries ranked highest, while those of Canada and the U.S. were average, according to the study’s authors.

The report will be published in Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety. Lead author Prof. Sylvain Charlebois, College of Business and Economics, presented the findings at a conference in New Orleans on June 22.

He said the findings hold important lessons for the Canadian government, farmers, policy-makers and exporters.

“Canadian food safety is fairly secure, but improved traceability would enhance a range of areas, including animal welfare, organic sourcing, fair trade and food fraud,” he said.

“Strengthening our tracing systems would provide increased global trade options for Canadian farmers and producers, with fewer restrictions on exports from Canada.”

During food safety scares, an entire country’s particular product may be banned while investigators determine where the problem product originated, he said.

“One of the complications is tracing affected products internationally and domestically when there is an incidence of food-borne illness or animal or plant disease,” Charlebois said.

“The complexity of traceability involved in following food throughout a supply chain makes the process of product tracking slow and inefficient in times of crisis.”

Sales to China of Canadian beef and pork are still limited because of differing regulations and fears in China about the safety of Canadian beef. Charlebois said the success of the Canadian produce and agriculture industry depends on access to markets around the world.

“Globalization is why food traceability is so important. We are seeing foods shipped all over the world. The ability to track where these foods are from and have been is key to improving confidence in trading partners across different nations. This trend is expected to continue, and improved tracing will mitigate the need for regulations,” he said.

Graduate student Sanaz Haratifar, a co-author on the report, said a number of issues could prevent Canada from improving its food traceability.

“Population density and sound logistics help build better traceability systems. Canada has neither, so it will remain a challenge to do better, but some incremental commitments can be made,” she said.

Charlebois said Canada and the U.S. could take a number of steps to improve traceability.

“Increased activity from global trading of food items will lead to various benefits and complications across different countries. We need to look at what’s happening elsewhere, especially in Europe, so systems can be harmonized and standardized.”

The study is titled “Comparison of Global Food Traceability Regulations and Requirements.”