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Murk Boerstra (FNLI): “We are facing a complex adventure, and it will take babysteps”
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Murk Boerstra (FNLI): “We are facing a complex adventure, and it will take babysteps”

As Fresh Upstream’s co-initiator, Murk Boerstra (deputy director of the Dutch Food Industry Federation (FNLI)), is faced with a complex but also incredibly relevant adventure. “Societal demands regarding food safety  and sustainability require more transparancy about food. That’s what we are working on at Fresh Upstream.”

Consumers, governments and NGO’s not only want to know more about food’s nutritional and healthvalues and about the presence of allergens, but also about the origin and the way food is produced. They want to be informed in a pro-active way or be able to check these matters. Current technological possibilities boost this need.  

Transparancy on food is a complex matter however. Boerstra: “There are still people who think that creating a website and database and asking around will be enough. Reality is very different. When you examine it more closely you discover how complex, diverse and heterogene this matter is. For instance because chains consist of many links and exist alongside each other. And because, for instance, milk of diffferent farmers is mixed. With processed products things get even more complicated.”

According to Boerstra this constitutes a major challenge and that’s why an initiative like Fresh Upstream is absolutely necessary. “In the first place, parties that need information from each other have to speak to each other. At Fresh Upstream this is now happening for the first time. Then these parties have to become aware how relevant a uniform way of handling information is. It’s cynical to say, but crises like the one concerning fipronil support this awakening.”

Technical solutions

The next step is that parties agree on which information they need from each other and making arrangements in order to realize this. “Only then will we look at technical solutions that will enable data to actually flow through chains. This is not the problem, technically anything is possible. Progress mainly depends on the felt sense of urgency and the ability and willingness of companies to share information with others. Fresh Upstream represents a systematic approach that enables this process to move forward.”

A complex job, because even information on something seemingly simple as a product’s lenght, width and height, causes many headaches. “Because; how do you measure that? From the product’s front? But what is the product’s front? On this subject alone entire manuals have been written. When it comes to more complex characteristics that need to be described in a completely  clear way, things get even more tricky. Besides that, it is sometimes not in a party’s interest to be 100% transparant or against competition laws.” 

Bar code

The bar code that was introduced in Dutch supermarkets around fifty years ago, is a good example of the desired final result. “But it took decades for this barcode to become common on all products. Now it is a matter of realizing the same standardisation earlier in the chain. This concerns totally different companies than manufacturers and retailers. It comes down to creating a movement. One that FNLI supports wholeheartedly.”

Boerstra points out that there is no one solution that fits all. “It is possible that finally the meatindustry will make different choices than fresh produce, but within a uniform system. It is also an option that we start with a few chains within which data will flow in certain areas and maybe, to start with, only between certain parties. It’s going to take babysteps because there are no easy answers.  It’s a complex adventure that we are facing.”

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