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Leveraging GS1 standards to meet key food safety challenges

Siobhan O’Bara, Senior Vice President, Community Engagement, GS1 US


Fulfilling FSMA 204 Traceability Final Rule Requirements, augmenting supply chain visibility, agility and resilience

Food safety experts from around the world are gathering in Atlanta this week to learn from industry leaders about new ideas, insights and solutions addressing the crucial need for more agile, transparent, and resilient supply chains to maintain a safe and sustainable food system.

Traceability and sustainability are growing concerns, rising in public awareness even before the global pandemic and its never-ending consequences. Today’s consumers want access to more information about the products they buy and the foods they eat. They are increasingly concerned about issues that align with their values, preferences and needs, like ingredient sourcing, processing conditions, additives, allergens, environmental impact and more. 

A common denominator among all these issues is the need for people, companies, and industries to come together and collaborate to create global solutions that can withstand the vicissitudes of modern life. Many of the food industry’s leading companies are promoting the adoption and implementation of GS1 Standards to enable automated information exchange between trading partners, increasing supply chain visibility to facilitate faster, more efficient planning and response to unexpected impacts. At the same time, the ability to share product information across the supply chain is the key to improving traceability for a safer food supply.

Food traceability is necessary to halt the distribution of contaminated products and prevent the spread of pathogens that make people sick. Quickly and accurately finding and removing affected product from the supply chain is essential to minimize negative impacts. This is why the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is imposing a new rule that mandates additional record-keeping for foods on its Food Traceability List; these foods have been identified as the most frequent sources of foodborne illness outbreaks in the U.S.

The new Food Traceability Final Rule (Final Rule) implements the US FDA’s Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) Section 204(d) and supports the agency’s New Era of Smarter Food Safety Blueprint. Under the Final Rule, any company that handles foods listed on the FTL is required to collect and maintain granular data documenting the products’ status and movement through the supply chain, so they can be more readily tracked and traced in the event of an investigation or recall. The Final Rule also states that the information needs to be provided to the FDA within 24 hours or within some reasonable time to which the FDA has agreed.

GS1 Standards such as Global Trade Item Numbers (GTINs) and Global Location Numbers (GLNs) for identification of products and locations, respectively, are critical to this implementation. Many food industry stakeholders have already prioritized the use of these GS1 Standards to enable traceability programs and help minimize the need for costly food recalls. Electronic Product Code Information Services (EPCIS), a standard for providing event and transactional data about a product’s journey, is becoming important for its ability to not only provide the status of an item (e.g., in transit, temperature, etc.) but also because it supports the FDA’s vision for sharing event data like growing, receiving, transforming, creating, and shipping food products, electronically. Combined, these three GS1 Standards give the industry a foundation for identifying, capturing, and sharing information about products and support industry’s focus on recording critical tracking events and key data elements to address Final Rule requirements.

Beyond meeting regulatory requirements for traceability, forward-thinking companies are harnessing the power of digital technology to meet consumers’ growing appetites for more detailed information about the products they buy and the companies that produce them. Brands and retailers are moving toward adoption of a next generation of barcodes, the two-dimensional (2D) barcodes (e.g., GS1 DataMatrix) that can be embedded on product packaging with virtually limitless amounts of data compared to the traditional linear barcode (UPC). In fact, the retail industry has committed to become capable of implementing and scanning 2D barcodes at point of sale within the next four years, in a GS1 US-led initiative called “Sunrise 2027.”

Besides the opportunity to embed additional supply chain information such as expiration and “use by” dates, batch and lot numbers and more, the 2D barcode is also a data carrier for establishing digital connections between brands and consumers. Its robust data capacity offers an opportunity for brands to provide the increased transparency that consumers are coming to expect. They can enhance brand identification and loyalty by creating web-based content like recipes and sustainability stories that can be accessed with a simple scan on a smartphone, for example. These are the types of enhancements that will come hand-in-hand with the progression of digital technology integration in people’s lives, and across industries, as we move forward.

At this year’s GFSI Conference, I’ll be moderating a lively panel discussion with Renee Perry (Vice President, CSR/ESG, Quality & Food Safety at Culinary Creations) and Benji Berg (Program Lead, Supply Chain Chick-fil-a)  about the supply chain improvements that lie ahead. We’ll talk about how their companies are using digital technologies to enhance current processes and how, when these technologies are combined with GS1 Standards, they can bring future-proof transformations to international trade – delivering the products and information that people need and want, weathering through unpredictable changes, and helping assure the safety of the global food supply. Please join us in this special conference session, Tuesday, April 25, at 1:30-2:15 p.m. I hope to see you there!