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Guest Pundit — Traceability And The Need For A Common Language

A lot of the focus on traceback has been on requiring growers to maintain certain records. That may be useful, even important, but we wanted to explore how technology could be used to enhance the industry’s ability to effectively trace products back to their source.

Gary Fleming, vice president, industry technology and standards at the Produce Marketing Association, has been kind enough to contribute two Guest Pundit columns related to this important topic.

Today we will talk about the need for a common language to make traceback work. Tomorrow, we will talk about how to pair that language with technology.

Gary Fleming
Vice President, Industry Technology
and Standards
Produce Marketing Association

With the recent attention given to food safety and the need for traceability, a question that logically arises is: “What role can technology play?” The answer lies, we believe, in the industry’s adoption of data standards. Data standards provide a universal language that will allow every segment of the supply chain to use readily available technology that can answer traceability questions.


If we were to look into the bag of supply chain tools available to the industry, we would find electronic commerce, bar codes, data standards, radio frequency identification RFID reduced space symbology RSS and data synchronization. Any and all of these tools can play an important role in traceability and they all also require the same common denominator: data standards.


In a survey of the produce industry conducted in September 2005, a mere 4 percent of respondents were using data standards at the pallet level, only 6 percent were using standards at the case level, and 42 percent were using standards at the item level. The large majority of the industry uses either a proprietary system or data standards as an exception to their normal process. Unfortunately, both scenarios result in the inability to participate in collaborative supply chain tools and would diminish the ROI.


Currently, a data standards system developed by GS1 can be readily applied throughout the entire supply chain. (GS1 is the standards organization responsible for product identification and technology standards used in over 26 different industries and in more than 103 countries.) In fact, it is already widely used by retailers around the world. For example, the Universal Product Code, referred to as UPC, is part of the GS1 data standards and is used at the item level with virtually every grocery retailer in North America. Additionally, the GS1 data standards are also the data standards used for bar coding, RFID, RSS, electronic commerce, data synchronization, and traceability systems.

Adopting GS1 data standards, therefore, will allow the industry to speak one global language and will enable us to synchronize specifications for any given product, convey information on items, track and trace product, gather product movement data, track shrink more effectively, automate receiving, have real-time inventory and automatic put-away, integrate systems, and more.


The process of utilizing GS1 data standards begins by identifying a given product and company with a number that is unique to that specific product and company. The company is distinguished from every other company in the world by a Company Prefix number assigned by GS1. The product itself is differentiated from every other product by an Item Reference Number assigned by the company that owns the Company Prefix. With these numbers, any item, case, or pallet can be readily identified without ambiguity or cross-referencing.

Traceability is only one of the myriad benefits inherent in identifying and tracking product from field to consumer purchase. However, in order to use the technology that will allow traceability to take place, one must first adopt the global language of data standards.

Much appreciation to Gary and PMA for sharing this information. This type of standard setting is an ideal function for a trade association, and the industry has been well served by PMA’s pioneering efforts in this area. This kind of work is not very dramatic, but it is the infrastructure of the business and thus essential. All too many CEOs and marketing people leave all this stuff to the technology team, but being up to speed on data standards will not be a luxury add-on in the future. It will be essential knowledge for doing business in the future.

And if we are serious about traceback, we have to, as an industry, require a lot more than paper records sitting in file cabinets. This may be a place where the Buyer-led Food Safety Initiative can play a useful role.

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