Pairing the global language with technology
The ability to trace an item, case, or pallet to its origin requires affixing data directly onto the item, case, and pallet. In the food industry, barcodes are the most widely used technology to convey information and they are ideally suited to fresh fruits and vegetables as well.
The four critical pieces of information needed at the pallet level include unambiguously identifying each pallet with a unique pallet ID number, the grower, the lot number, and the pick date. Once this essential information is tied to the pallet ID number, it is encoded into a barcode and printed onto a label before being affixed to the pallet. Based on the study done by PMA and CPMA, Fresh Produce Traceability: A Guide to Implementation, the current barcode designed to be used at the pallet level is well-suited.
Under the proposed system, a Global Trade Item Number (GTIN) would be used to link the case to its respective pallet. A GTIN is a data standards-based number that identifies the case. The combination of the GTIN plus the lot number allows suppliers to trace the product back to its specific pallet or, depending upon the format of the lot number, all of the way back to the field. However, if the lot number does not include the pick date, the GTIN on the case plus the lot number will allow the supplier to track the case back to its unique pallet which does include the pick date.
Since the barcodes that are currently used on cases cannot hold all of this essential information, it is recommended that the barcodes used on pallets be also used on cases.
Linking the item to the case of product from which it came requires identifying the supplier, item number, and lot number. Currently, information about an item of fresh produce is contained on a PLU sticker. The sticker information identifies the commodity, variety and, in some cases, the general size, but not the supplier or lot number. Because the UPC barcodes used on packages can hold no more than 12 digits of information, they are not able to house this critical information. Additionally, the barcode size would most likely obscure a larger portion of the produce item. Fortunately, much smaller barcodes already exist and can be used on items. They are called Reduced Space Symbology barcodes or RSS.
RSS barcodes is a family of barcodes that can be read by most scanners manufactured after 2002 and can hold between 14 to 74 digits. While these barcodes can be smaller than the UPC barcode and can even fit onto a PLU sticker, the more data included on the barcodes the larger they need to be. Again, depending upon how much information is included, these barcodes can be even larger than the UPC barcode. The illustration below contains an RSS barcode that holds 14 digits of information (i.e. specifically, the GTIN mentioned earlier) that would fit nicely onto a typical PLU sticker.
Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) very efficiently tracks a product as it moves through the supply chain by recording the date and time the product moves through an RFID reader.
With regard to traceability, the current method prescribed by EPCglobal (a wholly owned subsidiary of GS1 responsible for the creation of standards for RFID) uses the information in the RFID tag as a pointer (or a reference number) to the data, NOT the data themselves.
Once the numbers inside the RFID tag are read, these numbers have little to no meaning until they are electronically processed through a network in order to identify what actually occurred at the “read event” or moment the information was read. An advantage of this method is that it provides an opportunity to store as much information during the “read event” as desired. A disadvantage, however, is that the network is still new and many of the rules and protocols are still being refined. In addition, using a network to get the details of what is being read does not allow for real-time access, which is sometimes necessary depending upon the specific situation.
IMPACT ON BUSINESS
Based upon the GTIN produce pilot just concluded in September of 2006, PMA found that incorporating the GTIN standard at the case level requires significant system and process changes by both the supplier and buyer communities. At the item level, it requires much more work for retailers.
Barcodes and RFID can be used at the pallet and case levels to carry information needed for traceability. In addition, the RSS barcode can accommodate both the amount of information and the need for occupying the smallest amount of space possible which is of paramount importance at the item level. Both technologies require the use of the GTIN. These technologies also require changes to databases and programs that were built to accommodate proprietary item numbers and SKU numbers. Systems and processes would require altering in order to accommodate utilizing a new 14-digit GTIN number. It would also necessitate some business process changes that would require additional training.
This article has only reflected on one very small by-product of using these technologies: traceability. There are many more benefits including process automation, reduced handling, no-touch processing, increased visibility, faster receiving, automated put-away, real-time inventory, product tracking and tracing, cold-chain management, maximizing productivity and many more.
These technologies are not “future” technologies; barcodes have been used for more than two decades. Nevertheless, many in the industry are experiencing the same fear of RFID technology as they did more than 20 years ago when barcodes were first introduced. We feared then that the changes would cost too much, would force too many changes, and would not provide an ROI, among other concerns.
The reality is that the landscape of the marketplace has changed. Previously, we did not have the high visibility that are given to recalls today, we did not have the same pressures from the consumers and the government that we have today, and we did not have the same technologies that we have today. Simply put, we have the ability do more than ever before and, most importantly, our consumers, the ultimate deciders, require it.
For additional information:
Just yesterday PMA sent over a release announcing the results of a pilot program with GTINs:
Pilot program reveals benefits of using GTINs
The Produce Marketing Association (PMA), Food Marketing Institute (FMI), the International Foodservice Distributors Association (IFDA), and GS1 US announce the completion of a pilot program designed to measure the impact within the produce industry of using GS1 standard numbers to identify cases and the resulting benefits on traceability, food safety, supply chain efficiency and profitability.
The findings confirmed that using GS1 standard numbers on cases provided pilot participants with an accurate and efficient way to manage and track the flow of information throughout the supply chain which led to improved communications, reduced lead time and errors, and can ultimately reduce costs.
“The PMA GTIN pilot turned out to be a valuable learning experience for us. We (Wal-Mart) consider ourselves to be fairly technologically advanced with our buying systems; however, as a result of the pilot program, areas were brought to our attention that needed additional work within our systems,” said Wal-Mart merchandise manager, Mike Agostini. “Every retailer should be seeing the benefits GTIN case coding provides; thus, every retailer should be actively working on where they are and what they need to do to make this a reality within their organization.”
The Global Trade Item Number (GTIN) is a 14-digit number that can be used on cases, pallets, and items and is required for electronic commerce, barcoding, Radio Frequency Identification (RFID), and Reduced Space Symbology (RSS). The ubiquitous U.P.C. (Universal Product Code) found on virtually every packaged item in retail stores throughout North America is the most well known representation of a GTIN.
“Because FreshPoint takes food safety very seriously, we were very interested in participating in the pilot program. From this experience, we believe GTINs are an excellent traceability tool that will benefit the entire foodservice industry,” said FreshPoint president and chief operating officer, Brian Sturgeon. “Utilizing GTINs provided FreshPoint with evidence that using data standards along with barcode technology in shipping and receiving will help drive costs out of the supply chain.”
The documented outcomes of the program include information about integrating produce into existing and future systems using GS1 standards, challenges encountered and their possible solutions, an assessment of required education and training, and strategies for effective implementation. The study, entitled “GTIN: A Case for Streamlining the Supply Chain,” is available for purchase from the four pilot program partners, Produce Marketing Association, GS1 US, Food Marketing Institute, and the International Foodservice Distributors Association.
“Adoption of standard GTINs is the single most important initiative the fresh produce industry can undertake. It is essential to the foundation of many other technology initiatives including enhanced e-commerce, RFID, RSS, Category Management and Traceability,” said The Oppenheimer Group vice president and chief operations officer, Doug Grant. “The PMA pilot project has shown that GTIN implementation is viable for all companies no matter the size, and can result in a dramatic improvement in both supply chain and internal operational efficiencies.”
According to a study conducted by PMA in September 2005, only 30 percent of the 100 produce suppliers and 43 buyers surveyed were using GS1 standards at the item level, 6 percent at the case level and a mere 4 percent at the pallet level.
It is understandable but regrettable that most in the industry don’t move on this type of technology until someone demands it. Typically it is a buyer. Large suppliers to Wal-Mart and the Department of Defense have been early adopters on RFID because they didn’t have a choice if they wanted to keep the business of these giants.
Now as we draw up the new Good Agricultural Practices and Good Manufacturing Practices, we have an opportunity to make being set up technologically for effective traceback part and parcel of being food safety compliant.
Simply requiring documents to be stored is not an effective traceback system. We need to think in terms of universal RFID so if we need to recall product we can find it anywhere it may be in industry. It appears that GTIN is the place to start.
It’s not your father’s produce industry anymore.
Many thanks to Gary and PMA for their most valued contributions.