What is product traceability?

When you hold a couple of apples in your hand, you can feel pretty confident that they haven’t changed much from when they were picked off their trees. But there’s a lot you can’t tell just by looking at them.

You don’t know whether each was grown with harsh chemicals, hormones or steroids. You don’t know how they were washed or transported. You don’t even know whether one came from the farm down the road or the other from overseas.

There is a lot more to a product’s story than what the eye can see. That’s even more true for nutritional supplements.

Sure, the label says those tablets, gel caps or gummies contain various plant ingredients and vitamins. But we’ve also seen reports of food adulteration, food fraud and safety violations in the industry.

How do we know we’re getting what the label says? Increasingly the answer lies in a company’s commitment to meticulous supplement traceability and transparency and their willingness to openly show and share that story with its consumers.

What is traceability?

When companies talk about traceability, they are really talking about where a product comes from, how it’s made and the ability to track that process through detailed records. It’s all about the supply chain—the path that begins with research and product formulation, moves on to growing or producing the raw ingredients, followed by processing and manufacturing, and finally packaging and on to the consumer.

For some products, a lot of steps and “hand offs” can occur within what appears to be a simple supply chain journey. Important details of safety and quality can get lost within those layers unless a company is diligent about tracing and documenting those details and enforcing key quality standards.

Traceability means being able to follow the path for an ingredient from the beginning of the supply chain—choosing the seed to be planted in the ground—to the end—the bottle in your hand.

“Traceability really comes down to record-keeping,” said Sam Kilgore, the manager of Supplier Quality Development at Amway, which produces Nutrilite™ supplements.

For Nutrilite, traceability is a meticulous nine-step process that starts with a farm-level view of its botanical ingredients and follows each and every step involved in making and distributing its products. It starts with why we chose each ingredient and tracks how the company ensures each one stays pure, safe and effective throughout its journey to end product.

Owning the process

Nutrilite sources the botanicals used to make ingredients for its supplements from its own four certified organic farms as well as carefully chosen partner farms. But whether they start on a Nutrilite farm or come from a supplier, the story eventually takes them to manufacturing facilities.

Ensuring the safety and quality of the product during manufacturing is easier for Nutrilite than some other brands because it manufactures nearly all of its own products at its facilities in the U.S., China, India and Vietnam, only outsourcing when certain capabilities are required to make them—like gummies. And even then, the company requires that same level of traceability, quality, safety testing and documentation from its suppliers.

So. Many. Records.

So, what does that look like?

“Records are maintained from the time something hits our manufacturing dock to when it goes out the door,” Sam said.

That includes tests and documentation to verify that the label on the raw material truly reflects the product inside and documentation of every manufacturing step and additional quality and safety checks throughout the process, including who performed each step and when they did it. Nutrilite also documents the cleaning and safety checks of all the equipment used in manufacturing.

Each step and result become part of the permanent record for that product. “We collect this information for everything we do,” Sam said.

By the time the product reaches the end of the manufacturing line, it’s been analyzed an average of 200 times for safety and quality—starting with the raw ingredients arriving at the factory and ending when the final package is shipped. That adds up to more than half a million quality checks each year.

That final product also has information connecting it to its very own Certificate of Analysis, or COA. The COA is sort of like a combined diploma and resume given out by the Nutrilite Quality Assurance team. It confirms that the product meets the company’s standards for purity, safety and effectiveness and contains the actual analysis results. It’s the “who, what, when, where and how” of what’s inside.

“It really comes down to the confidence a consumer can have in what they are taking,” Sam said. “Traceability is really the best assurance you have that this formula we designed for you is going to be delivered.”

Third-party verification

But the team at Nutrilite isn’t asking you to simply take their word for it. In addition to its own rigorous record keeping, Nutrilite partners with Ecocert, an international inspection and certification body. Ecocert verifies the Nutrilite botanical traceability practices throughout the supply chain, including at the manufacturing and farm level of our suppliers with intense onsite audits and document verification.

This extra step not only independently vouches for the Nutrilite traceability procedures, it also underscores the company’s transparency. According to Ecocert, the Nutrilite botanical traceability standard, powered by NutriCert™, is the leading global standard in the supplement industry.

Because nutritional supplements are not regulated in the same way medications are, it’s important to learn about the quality standards of the manufacturer. You want to buy from trusted companies that have a long history of transparency when it comes to their ingredients and those that use third parties to evaluate their practices.

As consumers, it is important to know where the ingredients in our supplements are coming from and how they are transformed into an end product. With that information, we can make the best decisions and feel good about the products we are buying for ourselves and our families.

“We are being as diligent as possible in the work we do,” Sam said. “It’s a lot of work. But it affects real people and their livelihoods, and having that perspective is important.”