More Than Food Traceability: The Case of Cassava Exporters from Costa Rica

Emmanuel Hess
Emmanuel Hess

Since the passing of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) in January 2011, producers, as well as other participants in the export chain, have been faced with new regulations and requirements, which have created new challenges. In looking at the challenge of traceability, the Georgia Tech Trade, Innovation & Productivity Center (GT TIP Center) in San Jose, Costa Rica has developed a methodology for mapping, analyzing, and describing the different processes in a food supply chain, as well as collecting and analyzing critical information. The GT TIP Center examined the case of cassava exporters from Costa Rica, which currently generates approximately $50 million per year, and has positioned itself as the main supplier to the U.S.

Cassava is a plant originating from South America and is known by various names, including yucca and tapioca.

For the last three years, the GT TIP Center has been mapping the cassava export supply chain and the identification of gaps between the current state and the desired situation in relation to the new entry regulations to the U.S. market. In addition to traceability measures, this research also included aspects for quality improvements and performance measures such as time, costs, and waste.

The endeavor was directed toward developing a specific methodology to map and analyze fresh produce export chains holistically by considering the following basic criteria:

•           To cut across the whole food export chain, starting at the farm level and moving subsequently into packaging and transportation until the product is shipped to the different destinations in the U.S.;

•           To integrate three different process dimensions into the analysis: traceability, quality, and logistics performance; and

•           To collect and upload critical information obtained at the field level, trying to identify at the same time opportunities for automation and data integration.

Under these criteria, and with a traceability focus, the GT TIP Center developed a standardized instrument for data collection and process visibility throughout the cassava chain that could easily model logistics chains for other industries. The tool, which contained a total of 134 items for valuation, has the capacity to graphically display the data collected and to simulate times and costs for the different processes, as well as identify risks and gaps at the activity level. The developed tool also allows for process modeling and for building scenarios for analyzing interactions among the stakeholders of the value chain.

The initial research found that under the current circumstances of operation, it can be concluded that cassava exports have a very basic traceability system in the sense that it is possible to trace one step forward and one step backward in the chain; nonetheless, the speed at which the process flow can be reconstructed is low according to the guidelines put forth under the FSMA regulations. In addition, not all the information required to characterize the process applied to the product can be obtained, reducing the quality of “traceable” information.

Also, the actual use of basic lot numbers show opportunities for standardization and improvement according to benchmarked practices. It was felt that, in general, information is not seen as critical in supporting food safety protection practices. To this respect, innovation with more sophisticated lot numbers can be introduced at little additional cost for the packaging operation. More valuable information on risk management for the different runs of production could also be obtained. It is important to note that most processing activity, as well as the gaps and risks identified, concentrate along the production and packaging stages of the cassava export process.

Among other conclusions that this research effort reached, is that the actual agricultural practices allow for the implementation of traceability practices for shipments, but programs must be developed and implemented now in order to meet and comply with the new FDA requirements forthcoming. Process adjustments also need to be introduced at the farm and packaging levels. Nonetheless, the biggest challenge is to take advantage and to further improve the actual technological platform in line with the upcoming data and information reporting needs that the new FSMA regulations imply. The absence of information and its registration represents a vulnerable point in regards to traceability, due to the fact that an adverse event that could require doing a trace back inquiry for a specific lot will not have enough information to properly describe the processing conditions.

Digital government tools that are already in operation, such as Costa Rica’s Procomer’s (Costa Rica’s Foreign Trade Corporation) single window for exports, can help enhance the country’s platform in dealing with traceability issues by centralizing and digitalizing essential information related to exported products. In fact, the current window system already captures a large share of traceability-related information.

The GT TIP Center’s endeavor to develop a holistic methodology to map and analyze fresh produce has shown to be very effective in determining the traceability capabilities of the system. It has also proven to be very helpful in determining process adjustments needed at the farm and packaging levels, and in analyzing the gaps and risks within those processes. This methodology can be easily adapted and applied to other countries for a variety of produce to show where one can benefit from analyzing how “traceability ready” they truly are.


Emmanuel Hess is the general manager of Georgia Tech’s Trade, Innovation & Productivity Center in San Jose, Costa Rica.