Thoughts from an active pensioner who is now somewhat past his Biblical "Use-by date"

"Why just be difficult, when with a little more effort you can be bloody impossible?"

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Traceability - Horse or Beef?

"Traceability" is the word of the moment.
The EU demands that almost anything that is manufactured, particularly food products, must be traceable, a process which demands a paper trail from the manufacturer to the retailer. Bureaucrats love this process as it produces paperwork and where would they be if they didn't have paperwork to manage. I'm sure it has existed ever since papyrus was invented, and one can envisage the site engineer at the pyramids receiving an appropriate certificate for every stone block that was brought to the site.

Unfortunately, that is all it is, bits of paper, often adorned with the rubber stamps of the people through whose hands they have passed. Frequently they are not even read and one suspects that little attempt is made to validate their authenticity. And of course, the system relies on everybody in the chain telling the truth, which is a very rash assumption indeed. Even without any real fraud, it is quite easy to imagine a meat processing plant with a batch of perfectly good traceable beef about to leave for the burger manufacturers, when it is discovered to be a few pounds underweight. So easy to add a bit from the another batch which might be beef, but equally might be horse.  In general terms, such a system will work within the UK where the majority of those involved are basically honest, but who is going to trust a piece of paper issued by a Romanian abattoir to a French processor? Obviously Findus did, but you and I certainly wouldn't!

I first met this problem when I was a junior engineer in the civil service and was sent to inspect some radio equipment at a well known manufacturer's premises. The Chief Inspector met me and led me to an office and presented me with the documentation, which it was assumed that I would examine. There were documents certifying the origin of the components from approved suppliers, test and inspection certificates produced during the manufacturing process, you name it, there was an appropriate piece of paper; the only incomplete document being the certificate of satisfaction that I would sign in due course. To the considerable consternation of the company's chief inspector, I announced that I would first examine the equipment, that I would pick out one and have it on the test bench. There was even greater consternation when it was discovered that it had all been crated ready for shipment!

And this is what I suspect happens with most of these paper "traceability" systems, as long as the paper is correct nobody even bothers to look at the actual product. As long as the paper is correct all must be well!

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