The supply chains that industries rely on to carry products around the world are undergoing a seismic transformation. Upheavals triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic and its seemingly never-ending repercussions continue to impede the flow of goods in every sector, including the global food supply. Shoppers are no longer surprised to discover that their favorite grocery products are out of stock; even restaurants are reporting availability issues that affect their menu offerings on a daily basis.
Unpredictable supply timelines can cripple the provision of goods across all industries, impacting production, sales, and customer satisfaction. The food industry faces the additional challenges related to maintaining food safety through the distribution of perishable items. Grocery stores and restaurants manage their supply chains and inventory with meticulous attention to temperature control requirements and expiration dates to ensure that food is safe to eat when it is sold. Delayed shipments can compromise freshness and elevate the risk of spoilage or contamination, posing a threat to public health.
Meanwhile a massive, technology-based evolution of traceability systems connecting suppliers and retailers across the entire supply chain is underway. This system hinges on effective teamwork among trading partners to facilitate real-time data exchanges so that all stakeholders can quickly pinpoint the location and disposition of a particular product at any time throughout its journey to point of sale.
In order for this system to work, all parties in the supply chain must be engaged in a collaborative approach based on standardized data that will allow clear and timely information exchanges. System compatibility and data standards are essential to enable full visibility and traceability so that buyers will know which products are available or out of stock, where they are in the distribution chain, and when delivery can be expected, for starters.
Sharing pertinent supply chain information helps all trading partners anticipate, plan, and optimize their ordering, delivery, and inventory management, as long as the data is exchanged in a standardized format that all parties can understand. This is the premise behind the adoption of data standards to enable clear and accurate exchange of information.
The momentum to incorporate technology for supply chain improvement also coincides with and supports two major initiatives driving the food industry’s adoption and implementation of data standards: FDA’s proposal to heighten traceability requirements for certain foods and a movement toward labeling products with two-dimensional (2D) barcodes that enable access to unprecedented levels of product information and transparency.
FDA Heightens Traceability Requirements for High-Risk Foods
Data show that most foodborne illness outbreaks in the U.S. are caused by certain food categories that are particularly susceptible to pathogenic contamination. The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) directed FDA to develop a standardized mechanism to identify these foods that pose a higher risk to consumers and to monitor these specific products with extra vigilance: to know where they are at all times, enabling fast, accurate removal from the supply chain if needed, as in the event of a recall or market withdrawal.
That’s why FDA is now imposing extra, mandatory traceability requirements for producers of foods they have designated as “high risk” under Section 204 of FSMA. The agency’s new Food Traceability Rule, with a proposed compliance date in January 2026 for all producers, will require that all supply chain partners that harvest, produce, handle, and acquire foods on FDA’s Food Traceability List (FTL) must keep more detailed records to drive greater transparency, helping to prevent or better mitigate outbreaks of foodborne illnesses.
The rule specifically requires those who “manufacture, process, pack, or hold” foods on the FTL to record certain key data elements (KDEs) associated with different critical tracking events (CTEs) in the supply chain. CTEs include growing, receiving, creating, transforming, and shipping; different KDEs will be required for each event, depending on the commodity being tracked.
The new mandatory recordkeeping procedures go beyond the typical “one up, one back” traceability to incorporate more robust data; under 204(d), each product needs its own unique identifier, batch/lot code, and serial number to be captured at every step of the supply chain process. Supply chain partners will have to maintain the data in their systems for two years and provide it to FDA within 24 hours of official request in the event of a recall so that affected products can be removed from the supply chain as quickly and with as much precision as possible.
Section 204 is an important part of FDA’s commitment to dramatically improve food safety. The blueprint calls for a new, technology-driven approach to food safety that enables supply chain partners to effectively communicate details about products on order, in inventory, and in distribution.
To ensure the traceability data recorded at every stop along the way can be understood and shared by all stakeholders in the chain of custody, the blueprint specifies that “existing consensus standards” be used to ensure that systems are designed with interoperability as a foundation. It calls for the use of global data standards to help industry speak the same language in transmitting product, location, and event information across the supply chain.
GS1 US is working with the food industry to help stakeholders understand how standards can be leveraged to enable better traceability and meet FSMA requirements. By using standards, foods harvested, processed, or manufactured can be identified with specific global trade item numbers. These numbers can be embedded along with expiration dates, batch/lot/serial numbers, quantities, weights, and other product information in a barcode on each product case. The barcode enables automated data capture at every point along the supply chain. Each stop is identified with a unique location number. Transaction events such as shipping or receiving can be recorded and shared using an information service to maintain a complete product history and pass updated information along to the next entity in the supply chain.
The Barcode as Information Powerhouse
Retailers have been scanning barcodes to facilitate product identification at checkout, primarily for pricing information, for 50 years. Modern, digital technology has enabled development of new, 2D barcodes that are capable of carrying a large amount of data, including the traceability details required under FDA rules and regulations. Product information such as ingredients, nutritional information, batch/lot numbers, country or place of origin, and expiration dates can all be encoded into a 2D barcodes—such as QR codes and data matrix barcodes—and ensure regulatory compliance with the newly proposed traceability rule.
Consumers, who are increasingly interested in learning more about the foods they buy and eat, can quickly find detailed information with a simple scan of this barcode on their smartphones. This enables consumers to make more informed decisions based on their personal values and concerns. In addition to ingredients and allergens, today’s consumers are focused on a product’s place of origin, its producer’s fair trade and sustainability practices, and other sourcing and processing details. Brands can increase consumer engagement by providing easy access to all this information, as well as promotional offers, recipes, and more.
Complete and accurate product information that is consistent between the in-store and online shopping experience is vital for consumer engagement today. The UPC cannot accommodate the growing demands for greater product information transparency, traceability, and authentication. By transitioning to 2D barcodes on product packaging, brands can provide more robust data. This migration will support a multitude of uses, including better recall management.
Retailers can leverage the information contained in a 2D barcode to highlight specific, verified product attributes that shoppers are looking for, details that cannot be encoded in a traditional UPC code, but that could be made accessible via a web-enabled data matrix barcode or QR code. These advanced data carriers also support retailer business processes and supply chain needs, enabling faster and more accurate product traceability, efficient inventory management, recall readiness, sustainability, and product authentication through access to expanded product details.
Increased product transparency will help retailers nurture relationships with shoppers and encourage brand loyalty. People shop where they know they can find what they need. This becomes even more important when they are frustrated by uneven product availability and must resort to finding replacement products. The availability of detailed product information can help retailers convert shoppers into buyers.
Grocery and other retail industries have made a collective commitment to enable broadly accessible 2D scanning capability at the point of sale by 2027. While linear barcodes will remain, the 2D barcodes will add significant functionality and benefits to better enable consumer engagement.
The Supply Chain of the Future
Information is power, as the saying goes, and when it comes to supply chain operations, it certainly is. The more stakeholders know about food products traveling through the supply chain and at retail, the better equipped they are to handle fluctuations in supply and demand, to meet evolving consumer needs, and to take swift, appropriate action when necessary.
Interoperable supply chain data that can be captured and shared by trading partners throughout a product’s journey from “farm to fork” is fundamental to the advancements needed. Transitioning to the supply chain of the future—including more granular track-and-trace capabilities and data-rich 2D barcodes to increase transparency and consumer engagement—is happening. As these changes take hold, the food industry will realize greater resilience and better operational performance. Better food safety is possible with the help of new technology and industry collaboration.
Fernandez is a vice president at GS1 US, a global standards agency. Reach her at [email protected].
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