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2015 has seen a number of widely publicized food recalls in various categories. Food recalls happen for a variety of reasons — foodborne contaminants, undeclared allergens, foreign matter — and no matter what, identifying potentially harmful product quickly and accurately is paramount when public health is at stake.

ALSO SEE: Improving Transparency in Food Manufacturing

Food Manufacturing recently spoke with Angela Fernandez, vice president of retail grocery and foodservice at GS1 US, the information standards organization that brings industry communities together to solve supply-chain problems through the adoption and implementation of GS1 Standards. Ms. Fernandez regularly collaborates with executives from top grocery and foodservice brands to address current and emerging supply chain challenges. As an authority on the food supply chain and food traceability, she shared her insights on food recalls.

Q: There have been a number of highly publicized recalls in 2015 — the Blue Bell ice cream recall, for example. How can companies with major recalls earn the trust of consumers again?

A:  There are many factors that lead to a widespread recall and all recalls are not approached in the same way. They occur for different reasons and companies have differing levels of preparedness in place. But in general terms, to “come back” from a widespread, multi-state recall, it is essential to show either that you already have well-functioning processes in place or that you have taken steps to increase your ability to precisely isolate and remove potentially harmful product from the supply chain.

Food industry stakeholders are working toward a system of improved supply chain visibility that enables whole-chain traceability. This means the company can more precisely track product as it moves through the supply chain by adopting standards that enable better system interoperability and collaboration between trading partners. Overall, demonstrating your preparedness and your strong trading partner relationships are important not only to build consumer confidence, but to also protect the brand’s integrity.

Q: How does food traceability minimize the impact of a food recall?

A: If all supply chain partners are utilizing the common language of standards, then following a product from its origin to the point of consumption becomes easier and can mean a more efficiently managed recall.

Traceability works by leveraging the GS1 System of Standards, which allows companies to uniquely identify products in order to achieve supply chain visibility — a manufacturer can literally determine a product’s location within their systems and have better insight as to what was affected and what wasn’t. Using unique product identification numbers like the GS1 Global Trade Item Number or GTIN, companies around the world can uniquely identify trade items as well as include supplementary information such as batch/lot number, expiration date, or serial number to communicate product-specific information wherever a barcode is scanned. Similarly, Global Location Numbers (GLNs) help trading partners share information about the movement and transformation of products based on the unique identification — that’s what creates the visibility that is so important during a food recall.

This level of visibility minimizes the impact of a recall in a number ways in the short term — it can reduce unnecessary discard of product, and it can also reduce related costs due to legal fees, fines, the need for renovations, and lost contracts. Traceability also minimizes impact on supply chain partners and provides a plan that essentially helps save the brand’s reputation in the long term. A company that is open and transparent with their information about the recall and how it was handled is likely to regain the trust of consumers faster and get back to business as usual. 

Q: What role do standards play in a mock recall?   

A: Mock recalls are routine exercises manufacturers can conduct on a regular basis to assess their recall responsiveness and generally become more proactive. With standardized traceability procedures already in place, it is easy to follow the path of the products through critical tracking events — those instances where product is moved between places or transformed. Just as if it were a real recall, processors can identify which pallets, cases and units were affected and where they are in the supply chain during mock recalls. Using standards, the team can also account for what is still left in the inventory and determine a reconciliation percentage, which helps to measure the success of the mock recall. After each exercise, it is important to evaluate the need for a change in procedure or perhaps to consider implementing new technology to streamline the recall process.

Q: How is the industry collaborating to better protect consumers?

A: Supply chain visibility — the foundation of enhanced traceability — is a key focus of the GS1 US Retail Grocery Initiative. While GS1 Standards have been leveraged in the industry for more than 40 years, the Initiative brings together leaders from grocery, fresh foods and consumer packaged goods to determine how standards can help address common industry challenges. The Supply Chain Visibility Workgroup has a mix of participants from manufacturers, suppliers, distributors, wholesalers, retailers and technology providers that are working on industry-specific best practices for managing supply chain visibility and the key business processes, including recall readiness, that depend on enhanced visibility.

What we hear from industry stakeholders is that while they know about some of the benefits of supply chain visibility, they don’t always know how to implement a program within their organizations to get the maximum gain from investments they have already made. GS1 US has some educational resources to help unlock this value and is holding a workshop in October. These are the best ways to gain a thorough understanding of how GS1 Standards support supply chain visibility during a product’s life cycle.

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