Setting the standard in traceability

Food safety scares and product recalls are unfortunate facts of life in the food sector. GS1 Australia provides the standards to enable organisations to effectively keep track of where our food comes from and help implement recalls quickly and efficiently.

In China back in 2008, six babies died and thousands more became seriously ill after consuming infant formula tainted with melamine, a chemical used to make dinnerware, laminates, flooring and the like.

On top of the horrendous human cost, the scandal significantly damaged China’s food industry. Imports of Chinese dairy products were banned in many countries and, as the huge demand for Australian infant formula in China illustrates, the reputation of Chinese formula producers has yet to fully recover.

The lessons here are obvious. Food safety is the top priority for food and beverage manufacturers and recalls are to be avoided. When they do occur, they need to be implemented and resolved as quickly as possible.

In large part, this comes down to traceability.

As Peter Chambers, head of supply chain improvement services at GS1 Australia told Food & Beverage Industry News, increased consumer awareness coupled with “an ever increasing channel called the Internet” mean that traceability has become flavour of the month.

“The time is right to talk about traceability, not just in food but in all areas. Anywhere where people can get injured, get sick or die, traceability is very important,” said Chambers.

Supply chain complexity
Chambers explained that true traceability is the ultimate goal. “This involves the ability to exchange information with all the actors up and down your supply chain community. Once this occurs, information of the whereabouts of affected product can be interrogated at any time,” he said.

In the real world, however, the complexity of the food supply chain makes this difficult.

“The supply chain comprises many different stages or types of organisations (or actors) who often either distribute or manufacture product that is sold to consumers,” saidChambers.

So, when food safety issues do arise, recalls can be complicated because the products involved have been widely dispersed.

On top of that, he said, different actors use a range of processes and systems to record production information. Data capture is typically manual and either stored in private ERP systems, in spreadsheets or paper- based recording systems.

“While traceability exists, it is mostly very disjointed and requires manual intervention and interpretation of data. In the case of a recall, the process of notification, product identification and so on can take days, if not weeks,” said Chambers. “The opportunity exists to improve both the notification and recall process and reduce times and accuracy of recalled products significantly.”

Chambers also pointed out that, traditionally, there has only been limited information available from each step in the supply chain.

“We now have the ability to add event data – information starting with the transformation of raw materials and produce into commercial product and the aggregation and de-aggregation, as well as the physical whereabouts as it moves though the supply chain to point of sale,” he said.

This data includes the what, where, when and how of supply chain events. It provides visibility at each point up and down the chain.

Standards are important
“GS1 is a global standards organisation. Our role is to help companies and industries collaborate in areas where a common standard, language or solution would help every participant achieve a better outcome,” said Chambers.

“Having quality traceability and product recall capabilities are critical areas that can assist any organisation deliver product safely to consumers.”

GS1 Australia provides a range of training and education services to organisations in areas such as item identification, data capture, traceability, to name a few. The company’s GS1 system of standards provides global unique identification keys for products, locations, shipments, assets, documents and so on.

On top of that, the organisation recently released a new updated version of its Global Traceability Framework to help industries and businesses implement traceability solutions across supply chains.

“Because there are major capability and even requirement differences between sectors, we are now preparing additional sector based guidelines on how to apply the framework. For example, the fruit and vegetable sector is vastly different to beef which, in turn, is different to consumer packaged food,” said Chambers.

Recall portal
One of the key benefits of having a strong traceability system involves a company’s preparedness to conduct a product recall or withdrawal. Identification of the affected product is only one part of this process.

Food Standards Australia New Zealand’s (FSANZ) Food Industry Recall Protocol outlines the legal requirements and responsibilities of food businesses with regard to product recalls and also offers advice and assistance in this area.

In 2011, GS1 Australia launched GS1 Recall (formerly GS1 Recallnet), a portal developed in collaboration with FSANZ, as well as the Australian Food and Grocery Council, (AFGC), the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), national retailers and a number of local and international food and grocery manufacturers.

According to Chambers, the portal is a community based mechanism intended to improve the communication between the two main stakeholders in recalls, namely the initiator or sponsor of a recall or withdrawal notice and recipient organisations (wholesalers/distributors, retailers, hospital networks, etc.).

The aim of the portal is to facilitate the identification and potential quarantine of affected goods as quickly as possible. It’s the link between identifying the affected product and removing it accurately.

“We are quite excited about the growth of ‘Recall’. We have well over 600 subscribers across food and beverages, general merchandise and healthcare and that is growing at 25 per cent per annum.

“This involves many major recipients including the supermarket giants, smaller grocery providers, and hospital networks, as well as many food production and distribution companies,” said Chambers, adding that food relief organisation, Foodbank is one interesting recent addition to the portal.

New technologies
Blockchain (the technology used in the crypto-currency, Bitcoin) has been much discussed of late. Because it allows users in a network to share information without it first passing through a server, it has potential for implementation in the food supply chain.

The hope is that it will help overcome the problem of data fragmentation and provide the data integrity needed to not only carry out recalls, but also prevent fraud.

Blockchain purely addresses the security of exchange of information, particularly between anonymous parties, while GS1 is more concerned with the standardisation of information within the blockchain.

Nevertheless, recognising the importance of the technology within this space, the organisation recently announced a collaboration with IBM and Microsoft to leverage GS1 standards in their enterprise blockchain applications for supply chain clients.

There are also other new technologies on the way. For example, GS1 Australia has developed a Visibility Sandpit solution that makes it possible to trial a community- based network solution that captures traceability event data at each point in the nominated supply chain using the GS1 EPCIS standards. EPCIS (Electronic Product Code Information Services) is a GS1 standard that enables trading partners to share information about the physical movement and status of products as they travel throughout the supply chain – from business to business and ultimately to consumers. According to John Szabo, manager – consulting at GS1 Australia, this will enable communities to cost effectively evaluate what does and doesn’t work in proposed traceability solutions.

He added that the organisation also provided standards for Radio Frequency ID (RFID) technology that can help capture product IDs at each point in the supply chain without direct line of sight.

“There are developments for more commercial use of RFID in food and grocery, particularly with meat which is a high end item. The higher the value and the higher level of packaging, the more cost effective the RFID solution becomes. Active tags also enable additional data to be captured such as the temperature variances suffered en route. RFID will also help traceability solutions which tie into visibility and event data. It is much better to track and trace a product,” said Szabo.

“There are a number of ‘newer’ data carriers (bar codes) that have been introduced that allow these data carriers to include additional information such as batch numbers, expiry dates and so on. One of these barcodes, GS1 DataBar, will allow the capture of batch information at point of sale in the near future. Being trialled by major supermarket chains for use with loose fruit, this has demonstrated significant benefits over the current identification,” added Szabo.

Chambers pointed out that coordinating complex supply chains is difficult and stressed that true and effective traceability requires the full participation of everybody in the chain.

“Use of global standards facilitates that adoption but at the end of the day it comes down to the preparedness of each stakeholder to understand the change, see the benefits both for them and for the greater good, and want to participate,” he said.

Still, where this is achieved, it is now possible to cut recall notification times from days or weeks down to minutes, and more importantly, the safety of the end consumer or patient is enhanced.

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