“All it’s going to take is some hassle over toxins or something like that and then the buyer companies will start to get pushier — and the industry will have to get equally resistant,” Dr. Charles R. Hurburgh, professor, agricultural and Biosystems Engineering, Iowa State University, predicts. “All it takes is for an incident to occur with a product that is close to the consumer.”
Potential cost and safety concerns aside, Dr. F. William Ravlin, associate director, OARDC, Ohio State University, offers this explanation for resistance: “Nobody wants to be defined as a bad actor. You can imagine the situation where it would be beneficial to very precisely identify the chain of custody and mitigate the problems, but at the same time, you’ll get a fair amount of resistance from different parts of the industry for obvious reasons.”
If the basic traceability systems are already known, how can elevators proactively adjust their grain management processes — what internal improvements can be made — to allow an organization to easily adapt to new or unforeseen government regulations?
A team of researchers has been asking themselves the same question, and they offer a solution.
Beneficial record keeping
Working with the USDA, extension programs, university system, grain firms and private industry, a research team has been working on developing systems to address grain quality by observing quality management systems in action — and one of the most important aspects, traceability with bulk materials. They have determined that grain traceability (at any level) runs parallel with the implementation of Quality Management Systems (QMS) in effectively tracking grain once inside a handling facility.
“We found that if an elevator has grain quality problems — say grain going out of condition — it resorts to turning the grain, maybe blending it, maybe attempting to cool it, maybe putting it into another bin,” Hurburgh says. “Oftentimes there is no record of this action. Guess what that does for tracking? It blows the show, and this costs money.”
At this point, the only possible way to determine where a problem may have occurred is through the process of elimination.
“We came to realize, in grain, the best we could do is narrow the fence to some part of the list of local producers feeding grain into the elevator,” Hurburgh says. However, he notes, if the FDA were to request a specific list of producers — say for a recall or bioterrorism — handing over a stack of records and explaining, “Here’s a list of my customers for the last two years, it could be anyone of those” isn’t going to cut it.
The solution, as Hurburgh admits, is rather obvious: “If you just write down: what bin you took grain out of, when, how much, and where it went; and integrate that with your database, you can then identify and eliminate candidate bins if there is a problem.”
While an elevator will never get a 1:1 correspondence of bulk products, of what comes in and exactly where it goes on the outbound side, if a series of recording processes are put in place — basic record keeping — it can limit the universe of possibilities down to about 70% accuracy.
“By doing forensic exercises — mock recalls — we could make steady improvement in the number of possibilities for any given problem by cutting down the possibilities,” Hurburgh says. “Here it is, now this sounds basic and simple, but just record what bin the grain went into the first time it showed up. If you don’t do that, you’ve completely lost it in the system.”
Traceability in action
“Traceability is a synonym for inventory control,” Hurburgh says regarding the strong connection between rigid quality management system practices and the efficiency of inventory management. “And if you look at it that way, traceability is simply a business management process.”
The benefit: If you know which bin the grain went into, if you know what was transferred in and out, and it was graded carefully when it was transferred, you can keep the quality records of the elevator much more realistic than a simple guess, and your inventory is much more accurate.
Similar to other formalized, statistically based quality management systems, like ISO-based standards, traceability came as a subset of the need for formalized record keeping in the grain and grain processing industries. While other raw materials require a very exhaustive analysis of products as they go in and out of the system, in a grain elevator, they typically do not.