From reports of cashews tainted with Salmonella, to beef patties contaminated with wood, to spinach containing allergens, to the now infamous Chipotle Mexican Grill E. coli outbreak, recalls and foodborne illnesses are regular fixtures in today’s news.
Recalls are costing food manufacturers millions of dollars and negatively affecting companies’ brands—a July 2015 report from Swiss Re, a reinsurance company, estimates that half of all food recalls cost the affected companies more than $10 million. As more industry and government regulations, such as the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), come into play to reduce recalls and prevent illnesses, food professionals are looking for ways to comply with these standards and advance their food safety efforts. A good place to start is by tracking and tracing goods with warehouse automation technology.
Traceability Using Warehouse Automation
Warehouse automation technology is proving effective in helping food manufacturers and distributors reduce and prevent detrimental recalls through advanced track-and-trace capabilities. One of the most powerful tools enabling traceability is a warehouse execution system (WES).
Typically, companies have relied on two separate software applications—a warehouse management system (WMS) and a warehouse control system (WCS)—to manage inventory and materials handling throughout a facility. However, a WES can combine the functionality of a WMS and WCS in a single application to optimize, manage, and control internal material flow and order picking without the need for complex integrations.
With a WES, food professionals can track inventory or raw materials (and any number of attributes, such as lot numbers, temperatures, etc.) throughout a product’s lifecycle. The system logs the product’s every move until it is loaded onto a truck for delivery. This creates an audit trail of every person and piece of equipment that touched that inventory, as well as every adjustment made along the way. But tracking and tracing capabilities go beyond the product’s movement within the warehouse’s four walls. Utilizing its flexibility to interface with other software systems like enterprise resource planning (ERP) and host systems, a WES can also capture batch data from the growers and manufacturers, and marry the data with the lot information created during processing. Then the system carries that data throughout each subsequent step in the supply chain—from storage, to packaging, to transportation, to the retail store shelf.
How does a WES assist in the recall process? With the data captured, food companies can quickly access detailed product information in real time. Therefore, if a product must be recalled, it is easy to search the system for a batch or lot with a particular UPC or SKU, and pinpoint when it departed and to where. With this specific information, manufacturers can pull only the affected items from store shelves. There is no need to spend valuable time and money removing every single product—an extremely expensive and inefficient approach that often draws more negative attention to the issue at hand. For example, in 1982, Johnson & Johnson famously spent $100 million pulling all Tylenol products from the shelves after discovering bottles containing cyanide. Although this was a precautionary action to ensure that all tainted products were off the market, Johnson & Johnson could have saved a great deal of money if it identified which lot contained tampered bottles and pulled just that lot.
It is also possible to link manufacturing data from a WES to a retailer’s point-of-sale system. A recall could be as simple and low key as an automatic phone call to alert those who purchased the item in question. Also, with reliable data and accurate audit trails, food manufacturers can prove compliance with safety regulations, like FSMA, and confidently give consumers peace of mind that they have withdrawn all affected products.
Integration with an AS/RS
While a WES can streamline manual materials handling efforts, it provides additional value when integrated with an automated storage and retrieval system (AS/RS). These robotic systems can optimally store layers and cases, with and without pallets, and rapidly retrieve them from inventory. In addition to a software system like a WES, an AS/RS comprises four components: a rack system to store product, a storage/retrieval machine (S/RM) running on a floor rail, a load-handling device or shuttle that moves product from the S/RM to the rack, and a conveyor system that move goods to and from the AS/RS to the staging areas.