Serialisation – the future of food industry traceability

By Simon Noakes, SMB Director, Columbus UK
Serialised box tracking has been standard practice in the beef and poultry industries for a long time – and the entire food space may follow suit if s...

Serialised box tracking has been standard practice in the beef and poultry industries for a long time – and the entire food space may follow suit if serialised tracking becomes a mandatory requirement. Simon Noakes, SMB Director at Columbus UK, explains the benefits of serialisation and how it can form a core component of end-to-end tracking and traceability in the food sector, satisfying customers and regulators alike.

The US has already adopted serialisation regulation in the pharmaceutical market through the Drug Supply Chain Security Act – the FDA acting to introduce carton and case serialisation to combat illegal and counterfeit prescription drugs and improve drug safety. In the food sector, where the supply chain is also highly complex and global and products are sourced from across the world, the same reasoning is also valid.

Authentication, track and trace, supply chain logistics and comprehensive product safety in the food industry are critical to protect consumers, operational efficiency and brand reputation. It is difficult to predict precisely how and when food safety regulations will evolve, but many industry players believe serialisation requirements may form part of the next batch of food safety rules. As witnessed in the pharmaceutical industry, the enhanced authentication and traceability of serialisation makes it far more challenging and less rewarding for counterfeiters to enter the supply chain.


Put the customer first for safety and peace of mind

Food manufacturers and suppliers that can show more granular track and trace capability down to the individual box level across their operations – whether this is at the inbound, production or outbound stage – will bring peace of mind to prospective and existing customers. If they can achieve this before being compelled to do so by any future legislation, this will have an even greater benefit to brand reputation.

Advanced technologies such as blockchain are also driving innovation for food manufacturer and supplier engagement. Serialising food packages and QR code labelling can feed information to a blockchain that provides transparent supply chain information direct to the end consumer.


Align with consumer ethics

Consumers are increasingly looking beyond just food safety information when making purchasing decisions, now opting to align their purchases with their individual values and beliefs.

Food organisations that collaborate with restaurants and stores to use advanced technology such as blockchain could harness their internal track and trace data to feed dedicated apps, providing consumers with information on ethical sourcing, product source, food standards compliance, or even granular information such as the sweetness of a particular package of oranges. Product serialisation is vital for the successful integration of these exciting technologies.


Lot tracing and serialisation – get the best of both worlds

Serialised box tracking and lot tracking is not an "either-or" proposition – there are significant operational advantages to using both processes.

All growers and producers face a choice on how to define what constitutes a lot, whether it is based on a time range, specific production line or the field from which produce was harvested. Whatever rule is established is likely to disregard other factors that may affect the quality and characteristics of the product. 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 valuable information that could be stored on a serialised box record.

Beyond this, if a contaminant or substandard raw material 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 products – even within the same lot and after sale or distribution to downstream customers.


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Back-end benefits – serialisation in the warehouse

Box serialisation also offers significant benefits for warehouse processes. Having barcoded, serialised box records with catch weight information for random weight products achieves much improved inventory accuracy and is especially important for products that are bought or sold by weight.

Even for fixed weight items, having serial numbers coded onto the boxes – using Box IDs or GS1-128 barcodes that include the serial number segment – allows the ERP or warehouse system to check for duplicate scans during picking and movement of products between pallets. In general, the ability to track the movement of serialised boxes from serialised pallets in the warehouse out to customers provides a superior audit trail that is vital for researching and tackling day-to-day warehouse issues.


Food manufacturers: waste not, want not!

Food waste continues to be an issue for the industry and society as a whole, with the UN estimating that a third of all food produced annually goes to waste. Although efforts are being made to reduce food waste at point of consumption, this also highlights the importance of greater traceability throughout the industry’s product and supply chains.

With close tracking and management of co-product, by-products and other potential waste, food manufacturers have the opportunity to secure a slice of the $47 billion upcycled food waste market, which is set to rise by another 5% in the next decade. This isn’t just about selling 'ugly' or imperfect produce. Take food peels, which can easily be turned into a jelly, or even past-prime fruits and vegetables, which can now be re-purposed into other consumable products. 

This will allow food manufacturers and processors to consistently convert food waste from a loss to a profit.


Opening additional revenue streams

Cutting down on food waste also unlocks the opportunity for food manufacturers to identify and open additional revenue streams. By implementing technology to track and manage valuable co- and by-products of food production, manufacturers can plan, schedule and record the consumption and output of these processes.

Using the latest industry-specific technology, users can create co- and by-product formulas based on any batch size and automatically resize the formula for batches based on demand and equipment.

This granular management allows manufacturers to define diverging Bill of Materials where one item goes into a product and additional items result in co- or by-products. Giving a food company the technology to track, monitor, reuse and sell co- and by-products of the manufacturing process helps avoid significant unnecessary waste in the process.

With greater traceability and management, food manufacturers and suppliers can both work to reduce food waste and actively demonstrate this to customers, at a time when people are more conscious of the environmental impact of food production and consumption than ever before.


Time to get serious about serialisation

Advances in box tracking and serialisation technology have today made it feasible to achieve the benefits with little financial impact. Food organisations should consider that introducing serialisation capabilities in their ERP and other management systems will provide advance preparation against fast-moving regulatory and technology changes, operational efficiencies, and a tangible way to gain a competitive advantage in the market.

By getting ahead of the curve on box serialisation, food organisations can help suppliers meet rising customer demands for serialisation, reduce product and ingredient waste and inspire confidence in end-consumers who expect detailed provenance about the source and quality of their food.


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