06/24/2014 01:12 EDT | Updated 08/24/2014 05:59 EDT

Farm-to-fork transparency: a global report card

Paul Taylor knows food.

Between managing two gyms, demonstrating exercises to clients and a demanding training regime, the 30-year-old personal trainer, bodybuilder and power-lifter eats six or seven meals a day.

“If I'm not eating the right foods, my body can't adapt properly to the type of training I'm doing, my health suffers, my performance suffers and in turn my business suffers,” said the six-foot, 210-pound gym owner.

Most of his diet includes fresh fruits and vegetables, beef and chicken. It’s that last product which almost killed him in October 2006.

“Initially I thought I had the stomach flu so I actually tried to just fight it off,” said Taylor.

But 48 hours after the first symptoms, his family found him sick in his apartment and took him to the hospital, where nurses re-hydrated him with intravenous fluid. Doctors told Taylor he was lucky his family found him when they did, and confirmed the source of his agony: salmonella.

He believes the food-borne illness came from the skinless, boneless chicken thighs he ate earlier in the day.

But it’s impossible to know for sure, since Taylor’s food wasn’t tracked along the supply chain. The ability to trace the source of food-borne illnesses depends on what country food comes from and where it ends up.

Patchwork of rules

A new ranking produced by the Global Food Traceability Center in Washington, D.C., reveals a patchwork of rules and regulations around the world when it comes to how easily food can be traced from farm to fork.

Canada ranks in the middle, alongside the United States, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and Brazil. European Union countries Sweden and Norway rank at the top, while China and Russia sit at the bottom.

Food traceability and transparency can play a key investigative role in a time of crisis, after the outbreak of a food-borne illness like salmonella or E. coli. It can help pinpoint exactly where the source of the bacteria began and how far it travelled through the supply chain.

A strong traceability system that tracks the events of a product’s lifetime can also provide consumers with a feeling of protection against faulty or misleading labels.

“Industry is responsible,” said Sylvain Charlebois, author of the report State of Global Food Traceability and professor of food distribution and policy at the University of Guelph.

“Industry should be made accountable to the consumers.”

Since Taylor’s run-in with salmonella, livestock like cattle and poultry have come under mandatory traceability regulations in Canada. But for other sectors, no mandatory regulations force food producers and companies to track food along the supply chain.

Some food sectors have implemented voluntary traceability systems such as Canada’s produce industry. But most food products are not easily traced, making it difficult to identify the different stops on their journey.

Researchers ranked countries based on 10 factors, including a country's mandatory or voluntary traceability regulations, product labelling, and accessibility of information about different products. Countries were ranked as superior, average, or poor.

Combating food fraud

A number of high-profile cases have brought traceability issues to the fore.

In 2013, investigators from the International Reporting Project Italy found tomato puree with a “produced in Italy” label had actually been imported from China. The labelling was permitted because water and salt were added to the puree in Italy, before being canned in China.

Olive oil companies are under increasing scrutiny as well, as reports from the U.S., Canada and Europe have revealed some products labelled as olive oil are really olive oil mixed with other, lower-grade oils.

Last year, people across Europe ate horse meat labelled as beef, sparking a massive wave of recalls. But tracing how horse meat ended up being called beef proved difficult for investigators because of the supply chain’s elaborate web.

“You saw farmers or wholesalers sell a product to distributors or even brokers that weren't entirely properly labelled,” Charlebois said.

“Fraudulent behaviour actually occurred before it got to the consumer. In the end, consumers were tricked.”

Western Europe ranks at the top: report

The report ranks 21 countries and their food traceability regulations, based on 10 factors, including the breadth of rules, what products are regulated for traceability, and country-of-origin labelling.

Thirteen Western European countries took the top spots because of mandatory regulations for traceability covering a broad spectrum of food, including meat, seafood and products incorporated into feed for animals.

“When it comes to transparency, we can recognize in Europe they seem to be more willing to share data and they seem to really want to connect more with consumers, so that brings them up in the rankings,” Charlebois said.

Middle-of-the-pack countries have room for improvement. According to the report, the U.S. lacks regulations dealing with traceability of any food product. Canada received good marks for livestock traceability, but lacks national regulations for other commodities.

According to results, China and Russia are failing consumers.

“The reason is that they're not forthcoming when it comes to looking at food traceability or they're looking at other kinds of issues in food safety,” Charlebois said.

The report calls on food companies in those countries to share more data with each other in order to track the journey of a product. The report also suggests increasing the use of technology, but Charlebois admits that might be out of the question, due to shrinking profit margins because of low food prices in recent years.

“It’s difficult for the food industry to re-think their food traceability systems,” he said.

Jane Proctor, vice president of policy and issues management for the Canadian Produce Marketing Association, said the report’s findings show traceability can help in times of crisis, but also can help industry be more profitable.

“There are efficiencies to be gained … and what we're hoping is that industry will leverage those other efficiencies,” he said.

'Blind faith'

Back in his gym, Paul Taylor continues to build his fitness business and push his body to new limits.

However, his near-death experience with salmonella still lingers in his mind.

“I was always careful with my food and now I'm especially careful with my food,” Taylor said.

He lost confidence in the global food industry and says he puts “blind faith” in the journey his food takes.

“I think that industry is riddled with things we don't know and things we wouldn't want to know, but at the same time we do need to know,” he said, adding he believes the industry needs to be more transparent about its products.

That’s a responsibility the industry must shoulder, according to Charlebois.

“The food industry will be expected to do more of these things — putting pictures on labels, putting more information, being clearer about what goes on in farms — because consumers are asking more questions.”