Take a look at the underside of a can of Coke and you’ll see a series of numbers. Those numbers can tell you exactly where and when the product was made, as well as where the sugar, concentrate and everything else came from — in short, those numbers reveal everything you need to know about that item.
Large manufacturers and corporations such as Coca-Cola have long recognised the importance of traceability, defined by GS1 as “the ability to identify the past or current location of an item, as well as to know an item’s history”. (See more on traceability here.)
Now smaller manufacturers and processers are getting onto the traceability bandwagon in a big way. There’s an increasing realisation that, if a business can get safety and traceability right, the public will always have faith in them. And in a world where consumer confidence and brand loyalty are increasingly fragile, that is an incredibly powerful thing.
THE NEED TO KNOW
For many, the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word “traceability” is product recalls. Having an effective traceability system in place makes it easier to locate defective or unsafe foods, pharmaceuticals, or other products in order to remove them quickly from shelves.
When a piece of red plastic was found in a Snickers bar in January 2016, it led to a mass recall of Mars products in more than 55 countries. (Not sure of the difference between a recall and a withdrawal?) Though this may sound extreme, it is traceability that enabled Mars to trace the problem back to a production incident in The Netherlands facility between December 2015 and January 2016.
There’s no doubt that being able to quickly and easily recall an item protects the consumer, sometimes even saving lives. Yet, traceability also protects the brand. By removing defective products promptly, you are preserving consumers’ trust in the quality and integrity of their favourite brands. (This piece on counting the cost of a recall has some good information, while this two-part article looks at avoiding recalls due to packaging and labelling faults.)
But today, traceability is about more recalls. For food processing businesses, traceability helps identify the source of all food inputs such as raw materials, additives, ingredients and packaging. And it has become a vital tool in fighting product counterfeiting. Counterfeiting is an enormous industry in China, capable of decimating Australian brands. Traceability can counteract this. (Here’s how wine makers can beat the counterfeiters, and those exporting fresh produce. Try scanning the demonstration QR code below right.)
Another critical driver for traceability in supply chains is an increased consumer demand to know more about the products they are buying. What is in them? Where did they come from? What are the conditions under which they were made? How did they get to the shelf? How will they be disposed of? This is particularly important in the meat, dairy and fresh food industries. More and more consumers want to be able to see an image of the paddock where the beef was raised before they buy their steak, or see the orchard where the apples in their favourite smoothie were grown. (Here’s how Camperdown Dairy consumers in China can check the product’s authenticity and its journey.)
WHO’S ASKING FOR TRACEABILITY?
Everyone. Consumers, industry regulators, food processors, and even media are demanding accurate information and precise identification of products. It’s no longer “nice to have”; it’s expected. In Australia, the Food Standards Code requires businesses to trace “one step back and one step forward”. Food businesses should be able to provide information about what food it has on the premises and where it came from, as well as having a system in place to ensure it can recall unsafe food.
At the same time, retailers such as Woolworths and Coles require their suppliers to help them ensure every product can be quickly and accurately identified throughout their supply chain. The Woolworths Quality Assurance (WQA) standard outlines stringent criteria for its suppliers when it comes to traceability.
HOW TO ACHIEVE TRACEABILITY
To ensure traceability throughout the supply chain, a system is needed that records and follows the journey as ingredients, parts and materials come from suppliers and are processed and ultimately distributed as end products. This includes the gathering of information on the components of products, parts and materials, product quality, safety and labelling.
A vital component within this is product identification, specifically barcodes and batch codes. All packages with the same batch number are considered to be the same in all respects. So, if the consumer, retailer or manufacturer identifies a problem with a product, they can use the batch code to trace the product back to a specific batch. Products with the same batch code can then be recalled or withdrawn from the supply chain.
Sounds daunting, right? Ten years ago, maybe, but advanced technology – sensors, coding, printing, communication systems and that all-important Internet of Things (IoT) – means product traceability has never been more achievable. (We’ve talked about the IoT before as a disruptive innovation ready to rock your supply chain.)
However, it’s not only about the investing in the right technology; the key to success with traceability is a collaborative effort between all parties in the supply chain. Getting this right can take time and effort, but it’s not without its rewards. Traceability isn’t going anywhere, and so long as it remains a priority for consumers, retailers and regulators, it’s an investment every business needs to make.
Need more information on how to implement traceability in your business? Speak to our experts at Matthews.
You may find this article on the importance of traceability in your supply chain interesting. Also, check out our resource library for these whitepapers on “Counting the cost of a recall” and “Serialisation 101 for product traceability”. These technologies are used in traceability, as are these solutions.
Photo credit / pagadesign