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Angela Fernandez

A recent report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ inspector general’s office found that the federal food recall process was too slow to be effective. According to the report, approximately 80 percent of the nation's food can take an astonishing 10 months to be fully recalled and removed from shelves. This leaves the general public unnecessarily vulnerable to foodborne illness, allergic reactions, and other safety hazards, and can mean prolonged damage to suppliers’ and manufacturers’ reputations.

With this renewed sense of urgency, it has never been more critical for food manufacturers to implement traceability to ultimately enhance food safety and instill consumer confidence in their brands. Coupled with a changing climate where more consumers value information transparency, clean labels, and authentic ingredients, it’s absolutely essential for a food manufacturer to implement traceability for survival in the digital age. Let’s explore three ways that traceability supports manufacturers’ recall readiness — improving trading partner collaboration, enhancing food safety, and reducing food waste.

Improving Trading Partner Collaboration

Just like the old saying, “No man is an island,” trading partners rely on one another to keep the flow of products moving from source to consumer. Some manufacturers rely on proprietary product identification numbers, manual business processes, and closed-loop systems that hinder their ability to track product with accuracy through the supply chain. Cross systems interoperability is needed to have full product visibility. Additionally, shared access to product data is essential to providing consumers with a complete and transparent view of product ingredients, origins, and other attributes.

Moving to a standardized system of product identification, data capture, and data exchange can help a manufacturer become more automated in its operations, therefore contributing tremendously to its recall preparedness. GS1 Standards — the same system that powers the U.P.C. barcode — enable systems interoperability and unique product identification that serve as a solid foundation for product traceability. Ever since manufacturers collaborated with retailers 40 years ago to adopt the U.P.C. barcode, these standards have helped industry facilitate supply chain functions and speedy checkout lines. However, in recent years, innovative companies have begun leveraging their existing investments in standards to ensure a safer food supply chain and improve data quality.

There are three key standards that trading partners adopt to facilitate traceability:  

Global Trade Item Number (GTIN) - Organizations can leverage their existing investments in GTINs to support traceability. This globally unique identifier can be recognized in all trading partner systems, even across geographic boundaries.

A Global Location Number (GLN) is the globally unique identification number for supply chain partner locations such as a manufacturing plant, a distributor’s loading dock, or a restaurant location. They help a company record each stop a product has made in the supply chain.

GS1-128 barcodes, when applied at the case level, enable companies to encode product identifiers as well as additional information such as batch/lot/serial numbers, best-by dates, variable weight information and more — key details that help companies isolate affected product during a recall.

These standards are the building blocks essential for enhanced trading partner collaboration and ultimately, recall readiness.

Enhancing Food Safety

There are many factors that contribute to improving food safety overall, many of which happen independent of food traceability such as a manufacturing plant’s cleanliness procedures. But food traceability reinforces food safety by filling in specific knowledge gaps that can help solve the mysteries associated with food recalls. Traceability answers questions about who sent/received the product, how it might have been transformed or stored, where it came from, and where it is going. Not only can it lead to valuable cost savings, traceability means the ability to prove to consumers that your product is not the source of the recall during an investigation.

Traceability programs can help companies identify the location of harmful products with pinpoint accuracy during recalls and withdraw it effectively. By breaking down the barriers that come with using internal proprietary systems, manufacturers can help retailers isolate product by GTIN, have batch/lot/serial numbers readily available, and find out if more potentially affected product is on its way to a given location.

For instance, a hypothetical manufacturer realizes a recall is necessary after pints of ice cream are improperly labeled, lacking the declaration of peanut ingredients — a common allergen. The clock is ticking and consumer safety is at risk. With the implementation of traceability based on global standards, communication among trading partners can be easily initiated and the mislabeled products identified in the trading partners’ interoperable supply chain systems.

Reducing Food Waste

Increasingly, we see media attention surrounding efforts to reduce food waste. Just recently, the Walton family, heirs to the Walmart empire, backed a company called FoodMaven that buys food from retailers that may have been discarded for cosmetic reasons and finds other buyers or worthy charities for the food. Appliance manufacturers like Whirlpool also made headlines with their interest in an app called Yummly that aims to help consumers use the food they have at home for creative recipes before the food goes to waste.

The traceability processes based on GS1 Standards not only help enhance food safety, but provide a solid operational foundation to facilitate less food waste. In the event of a recall, instead of removing the entire product from retail shelves, standards-based traceability procedures allow for a more specific identification between product that has been affected and product still safe for consumption.

Adopting standards-based traceability procedures will also lead to more precise inventory planning and category management between manufacturers and retailers. A standards-based approach facilitates a more effective “first in, first out” inventory management philosophy. Retailers can more efficiently manage automatic price markdowns as expiration dates grow near, prevent expired food from being sold at the point-of-sale, and support freshness initiatives for certain product categories.  

Ultimately, it’s important to remember that end-to-end traceability does not happen overnight. It takes time, even years, for all supply chain partners to fully implement and leverage standards. Now is the time for manufacturers to break down the silos created by proprietary systems and recognize interoperability as a strategic asset for recall readiness.

Angela Fernandez is the vice president of retail grocery and foodservice at GS1 US.  

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