Angela Fernandez is the vice president of retail grocery and foodservice at GS1 US, where she leads industry initiatives in the retail grocery and foodservice industries. SPW welcomes guest authors — click here to send articles or ideas

Angela Fernandez

It’s like déjà vu all over again.

It has been more than 10 years since the widespread spinach recall that wreaked havoc on public safety and cost the spinach industry millions of dollars to recover. Today, as the romaine lettuce recall continues we are reminded that it is always possible for e. Coli—as well as salmonella, listeria and other culprits—to taint our food.

While we can’t prevent a recall, traceability can limit the damage done.  Given the attention on this particular recall, it’s an important time for the produce industry to more closely examine traceability’s progress over the past few years, look at current roadblocks, and consider what the future holds with new technology like blockchain to enhance recall readiness.

Traceability Progress

For several years, food suppliers, manufacturers, distributors, retailers and technology providers have prioritized traceability by collaborating through initiatives such as the Produce Traceability Initiative, the Foodservice GS1 US Standards Initiative, and the GS1 US Retail Grocery Initiative.

Signs of the times at Schnucks and Kroger (above)

They have adopted GS1 Standards, which enable traceability by ensuring all trading partners communicate in a uniform manner. Standards ensure systems interoperability, and provide a singular approach to maintaining product information that supports, at the very least, “one up/one down” visibility of the product’s movement through the distribution channel.

The internal data and processes a company uses to track products is integrated into a larger system of external data exchange that takes place between trading partners.

There are three key standards that trading partners adopt to facilitate traceability. These standards are the foundation for recall readiness.

  • Global Trade Item Number (GTIN) – 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 farm, 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.

Harmful recalls such as this one might give the illusion that no progress has been made, however more than half of the produce industry has implemented traceability processes utilizing these GS1 Standards.

Temporarily Public Enemy #1

Many produce suppliers have updated their business systems and processes specifically to avoid repeating the long and dangerous food recalls of the early 2000s and trace food with greater accuracy. By recording relevant event data in a standardized format throughout a product’s path from supplier to consumer, companies have the ability to react quickly and with surgical precision to recalls.

Additionally, aside from recall readiness, traceability is increasingly seen as a growth strategy by consumer-centric retailers and foodservice operators. Many are often seeking out new produce partners to fit their “locally grown” criteria or other information transparency initiatives. Being able to reveal to consumers the source of their products can provide an added level of confidence.

What’s Holding Traceability Back? 

There are two current roadblocks associated with traceability implementation. First, many smaller suppliers perceive that the implementation of more automated processes and systems to be a mammoth investment of hundreds of thousands of dollars, creating a cost barrier. However, scalable solutions are available and companies can implement case-level traceability for around $5,000.

While this is surely not a decision a small farmer would take lightly, the key is to stay educated on what is really involved and weigh out the decision as an investment that will pay many returns in the future. In the longer term, traceability programs can offer the benefit of greater visibility into operations for better efficiency and cost savings overall.

Sprouts are a common culprit

Second, many in the produce industry believe that their internal systems are in good enough condition to answer any questions from any investigators. These systems often use proprietary product identification numbers, manual business processes, and only work within the four walls of the company.

Recalls continue to be long and ineffective because these data silos put severe limitations on tracking product through the supply chain. For traceability to be effective, the data used in internal systems needs to be compatible with external trading partner systems.  With these interoperable systems in place, recall time can be reduced to minutes and potentially harmful product can be isolated—instead of isolating an entire commodity type.

The most important part of traceability is the global identification system used to identify products, as well as locations, such as the lot that a particular food originated from. This lot-level visibility allows more direct traceability back to the farm, instead of the “web-like” structure investigators have reported they are facing with the romaine lettuce recall. Working within a standards-based framework means the information is always readily available and easily transmitted in consistent data formats – that every system can understand.

Blockchain And Traceability

Early pilots have demonstrated that blockchain will be invaluable to speeding up traceability processes, and can help food companies keep more secure records of each stop a product makes in the supply chain.  These developments are promising, however, the foundation of traceability based on GS1 Standards will be critical to the success of blockchain technology in the food industry.

What’s important to remember about blockchain is that its performance is only as good as the quality of data transmitted. Data that is incomplete or erroneous—which is often the result with such a heavy reliance on manual processes—will only be expedited on a blockchain. Now is the time to focus on the basics of traceability in order to be able to take advantage of blockchain in the future.

Standards are a necessary component to help streamline the transmission of detailed product data on a blockchain, leading to faster, more effective recalls. A specific standard called EPCIS (Electronic Product Code Information Services) can record granular information about a product’s transformation and journey on a blockchain. Just as healthcare has been leveraging EPCIS for 10 years to support pharmaceutical chain of custody, it can be used to record each event such as processing, packing, cooling, and other processes that provide important clues to help determine affected product with better accuracy.

Ultimately, to stay vigilant in order to protect consumers, all supply chain partners must work together to achieve traceability now. Recalls are inevitable, but we can limit continuous and widespread damage to public safety and to brand reputation if proper traceability processes are in place.


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