It was great seeing many of you at the U Connect 2011 Conference this week. It’s good to see that attendance is growing a bit more over the years. I think that it’s important for companies to be in tuned to what is going on with Supply Chain Management these days and how issues with a given supply chain are being addressed through process change or through use of technology. I bring up U Connect because of some of the things that I’ve learned while attending the conference.
Much of the conference was targeted around traceability of products, how change in processes and added technology is addressing ways to do this and which industries are leading the way. You’ll be glad to know that the Fresh Food and Foodservices Industry are in the forefront of the effort. Over the last couple of year’s producers, growers, distributors, grocers and retailers are teaming up with one another and partnering with standards agencies like GS1 and VICS, and contracting with many of the educational institutes creating a plan to identify ways of tracing products.
Many committees are already designing the steps/processes in the process of getting Fresh Foods to the consumer. As you can image, there are several touch points that perishable goods go through so it is extremely important to understand where the gaps are in the tracking process, what that work is, or what those changes may need to be. It's also important to determine if processes and technologies are implemented, that there will be value and consistent controls in managing outbreaks of E coli or Salmonella outbreaks in our food chain.
From an impact perspective we learned this week that when the contamination is identified, an entire industry is affected substantially. Even when a given grower or country was not the problem area, consumers became reluctant across product type, resulting significant financial fallout. For example, the issue with Spinach several years ago; it’s understandable that the demand for packaged spinach would drop dramatically, but there was considerable impact to consumption of other packaged produce like lettuce. Because of the limited traceability being used, all products regardless of which growers or producers was Isolated, confidence dropped for all Brands.
So what are these partners doing to improve traceability? Now that many of these partners have mapped out the steps and identified gaps, one of the ways of supporting tracking is to use Technology. Several of the U Connect sessions took us through the steps from;
- origin producer identification (Global location number/Global Company prefix)
- to product identification codes (Global Trade Item Number - GTIN)
- to serialized tracking/labeling (Serialize Global Trade Item Numbers – SGTIN)
as the starting point of track products and shippable units/containers. These attributes now allow us to go backwards in the supply chain to specifically define the origin of contamination. However just those steps will not impact the speed of going forward to the distribution of these products, rather they will help to isolate the affected brand and country of origin. So how do we move to the next level?
The next phase of the new process was discussed by using RFID technology. This technology includes the use of one of several types of RFID tags/labels. What we learned in the Pre-Conference sessions was that the same technology that is used when we scan our access badges to get into the office or the technology used when we swipe our debit/credit cards for purchases, is now growing of interest in for Product traceability.
We learned that RFID Printer software can assign data to an RFID tag that contains product ID, Serialized tracking numbers etc. Those same RFID scanners/readers can be recalibrated to single out the data within a tag attached to a shippable unit, thus locating the appropriate box or pallet of interest. This can then be managed as inbound shipments are received and account for these units outbound to stores or consumers.
Even though the costs of these tags are going down; there are still some companies concerned about the added cost of goods for this functionality. However, many of the earlier adopters are realizing that added benefit and improvement in consumer confidence is well worth the effort. To compliment the use of these tags there are some that are looking at additional data feeds reporting in advance attributes about incoming or out-going shipments/containers. Again, there is a cost and that’s managing the data from a feed stand-point to storage to analysis of the information for abnormalities (Electronic Product Code Information System - EPCIS).
If your company is not interested in updating technology or becoming an earlier adopter, I want to also share that many retailers are using ASN data and barcode labeling process as the next best thing to RFID tracking for perishable goods. Where many of the Food Service Distributors (like Mclane, American/Kraft Foods, Sysco, US Foodservice and Reinhart) and Grocery Chains/distributors (like Kroger’s, Publix, Supervalu, Wegman’s) had not considered the EDI ASN of much value to their product mix and processes in the past, they are now realizing that with additional attribute/ requirements to the EDI data and information displayed on the shipping label, they can immediately address movement and traceability. We’ll still need to have the established standards/fundamentals of product identification and branding as I mentioned earlier but by adding;
- Country of Origin
- Lot/Batch Number
- Expiration Date
to the 856 ASN data and displayed on the pallet or carton shipping labels it’s a start in the right direction.
If you’re not looking at the ASN and shipping labels, now is the time so start. If you are and do support perishable products, consider some of the minor changes I’ve suggested for your ASN and shipping label requirements.
For more information about RFID technology and the EDI initiatives around product tracking I’d recommend going towww.GS1.org.