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Mandatory serial tracking in the food industry: What's the ETA?

Serialized Box Tracking, a common, longtime practice in the beef and poultry industries, could become a requirement across the entire food space. 

The reasoning behind the FDA’s DSCSA pharmaceutical regulation—the one that requires carton and case serialization to combat counterfeit prescription drugs and improve drug safety—can be applied to food safety too, where the supply chain is equally complex and food products are sourced from all over the world.

Authentication, track and trace, supply chain logistics and product safety in the food industry are critical. While it is hard to predict how food safety regulations will evolve, many industry players believe that serialization requirements may be an element of the next wave of food safety rules. There are many good reasons to serialize, but the most important is to enhance authentication and traceability. Serialization makes it more difficult and less financially viable for counterfeiters to enter the supply chain.

It's all about the customers

Even in the absence of new regulations, food suppliers who can demonstrate more granular track and trace capability at a box level across their operations (inbound, production and outbound) will inspire confidence in potential new customers. Also, evolving technologies such as block chain are opening up new possibilities for end consumer engagement. Serialization of food packages and labeling with QR codes can feed information to a block chain that provides transparent supply chain information all the way to the end consumer.

Consumers care more and more about the provenance of their food, wanting to know not only that the food is safe to eat, but also to align their purchases with their values and beliefs. Block chain-based apps for consumers in restaurants and grocery stores, for example, could provide information on ethical sourcing, the location where animals were raised or produce was grown, whether standards for humane treatment or sustainable farming methods were followed, etc. Or even to provide information such as the sweetness of a particular package of oranges.

These technologies also open up the possibility of direct feedback from consumers to back producers and distributors. From a systems perspective, product serialization lays the foundation for integration to these exciting, emerging technologies.

Lot tracing or serialization? How about both!

The concepts of serialized box tracking and lot tracking are not an "either/or" proposition.  While serialized box information has typically been the sole basis for tracking and recall for beef packers and poultry processors, there are advantages to using both lot tracking and serialized box tracking. 

All growers and producers face a choice on how to define what constitutes a lot, whether it be based on a time range (first shift, second shift), a production line, a field from which product was harvested, etc. There are no hard and fast rules, but whatever rule is established necessarily ignores other factors that may affect the quality and characteristics of the product, which are not necessarily consistent across the lot. 

In cheese block production for example, even if food safety is not an issue, the quality characteristics at the start, middle and end of a run can vary, so having a serial number and timestamp on each box provides very valuable information that could be stored on a serialized box record if desired.

Also, tying a timestamp to a serial number can be very beneficial in other ways. If a substandard raw material or a contaminant was introduced into the process at a certain time, then having a usable serial number with a timestamp can reduce the scope of a recall of non-conforming product even within the same lot, and even after sale/distribution to downstream customers. More positively, having timestamp data for produced products that can be correlated to timestamped process data collection data, yield data, and product QC measurements provides a basis for quality analysis and continuous process improvement.

Serialization helps you in the warehouse too

Box serialization also can have significant benefits in warehouse processes. For random weight products, having barcoded, serialized box records with catch weight information yields much better inventory accuracy, and is especially important for products that are bought or sold by weight rather than by the case.

Even for fixed weight items, having serial numbers coded onto the boxes (either with Box ID’s or GS1-128 barcodes that include the serial number segment) allows the ERP/warehouse system to check for duplicate scans during picking or movement of products between pallets. In general the ability to track the movement of serialized boxes on and off of serialized pallets in the warehouse and out to customers provides a superior audit trail that is invaluable in researching the problems every warehouse deals with on a daily basis.

Key takeaways 

Box tracking and serialization have been perceived as costly and labor intensive, but advances in technology have made it feasible to get the benefits with little impact on cost. 

As food companies assess their IT needs, they should consider that serialization capabilities in their ERP and related systems offer an important insurance policy against regulatory and technology changes, a means to internal efficiency gains, and a way to gain real competitive advantage in the market. 

The takeaways: Box serialization can…

  • Prepare your company for more stringent track and trace regulatory requirements
  • Help food suppliers meet customer demands for serialization
  • Help food suppliers inspire confidence in potential customers with advanced tracking capabilities
  • Make internal warehouse operations more efficient
  • Provide better data for continuous quality improvement
  • Help prepare your company for the coming world of block chain and other traceability and end customer engagement tools

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