Recent major national and international recalls, coupled with post-9/11 regulatory initiatives, have placed the spotlight on an issue providing all the intensity of a Hollywood drama. The importance of accurate and efficient traceability of our food supply from farm to table has never been more apparent. There has been a surge in the development of systems that seem capable of working magic by generating an incredible amount of product and distribution information by inputting a small amount of data, like a lot code.
Lot-code tracking can help food industry participants meet the many responsibilities they are charged with upholding in return for the privilege of producing and supplying food.
Under the U.S. Bioterrorism Act and a 2005 European Union directive, traceability is required by law. Moreover, companies can protect their brands and reputations and reduce costs and liability by precisely tracking finished goods from their component parts all the way to the kitchen table.
Ultimately, the primary reason for lot traceability is to protect consumer health and safety. By accurately and quickly identifying potentially suspect product and all customers to whom it was shipped, manufacturers, suppliers and distributors are better equipped to warn consumers and retrieve affected product as expeditiously as possible.
In its basic form, the lot code is an identifying combination of alpha-numeric characters printed on a product container and case of finished products. Lot or batch codes are also required for all incoming raw materials from suppliers. That way, producers can track each raw material at the door and attach it to subsequent production information in which such materials are used.
The lot code can take different forms, but ultimately must somehow indicate the date – and sometimes even the time – the product was packaged.
The objective of lot-code traceability is to arrive at a total reconciliation of the number of cases of a given product made, all raw materials that went into the product and every location to which that product was shipped.
This goal can be met by using one of many traceability systems. Such systems range from manual processes where personnel must hand-write and catalog every detail to the latest software systems that can spit out any combination of details in a few keystrokes.
The number of products produced in a given facility, as well as the quantity and complexity of ingredients and the sourcing practices for raw materials, are key in determining whether manual or electronic systems will sufficiently meet traceability objectives.
Manual systems may be perfectly adequate to meet traceability requirements for companies that make few products with relatively simple formulas and short shelf life, few customers, and smaller distribution channels. However, for a business that produces 27 varieties of shelf-stable packaged pasta with a one-year shelf life and that is available in thousands of retail locations nationwide, an electronic system is necessary to perform the required backward and forward tracing required by regulation and industry-standard time frames.
Technologies vary greatly in functionality, depth of detail and, of course, in cost. Systems range from integrated warehouse management systems (WMS) to SAP traceability modules. Functionality ranges from tracing the minimum required by law to tracing much greater detail for proactive business purposes and customer specifications.
No matter what the system you must be confident that it will satisfy the numerous drivers that are demanding new traceability responsibilities at each step of the food chain. Test these systems through multiple traceability exercises to confirm that your system can produce the information you need quickly and accurately.
What’s Driving the Need
Pursuant to Section 306 of the Bioterrorism Act, effective for large companies as of December 2005 to the smallest of companies as of December 2006, companies that manufacture, process, pack, distribute, receive, hold or import food must maintain records that identify the immediate previous sources and the immediate subsequent recipients of the subject food.