How foodservice industry can collaborate to improve food traceability

How foodservice industry can collaborate to improve food traceability

By Angela Fernandez, vice president of retail grocery and foodservice, GS1 US

Last spring, the romaine lettuce E. coli outbreak presented a harsh reminder of how complex and vulnerable the fresh food supply chain really is. The headlines grew more troublesome from week to week, and eventually, five consumers died from eating tainted romaine lettuce. Another 197 became ill, and 89 received treatment from hospitals, across 35 states, according to the CDC. The FDA struggled for months to find the origin of the outbreak, while sales in the entire lettuce category declined. Nielsen research shows romaine sales dropped 45 percent in May from one year prior, and the outbreak has hurt other leafy green sales, too. Many foodservice operators pulled salads from their menus out of an abundance of caution, while consumer confidence sank. 

Our guests deserve better. The food service industry needs to improve trading partner collaboration so food contamination can be pinpointed and the impact can be minimized. There are three ways that the food service industry can work together to improve food traceability and enhance food safety in the supply chain: prevent, protect and predict. 


Even after the Yuma, Arizona, region had been identified as the source of the romaine lettuce outbreak, the pathogen crept further across the country because of the lack of efficient traceability in the supply chain. The long drawn-out investigation and mysterious nature of this situation could have been prevented with effective trading partner collaboration. 

For several years, food suppliers, manufacturers, distributors, operators, retailers and technology providers have prioritized traceability by collaborating through initiatives such as the Foodservice GS1 US Standards Initiative and the Produce Traceability Initiative. They have adopted GS1 Standards, which enable traceability by ensuring all trading partners communicate in a uniform manner. 

Standardized information about products and locations ensure systems interoperability and provide a singular approach to maintaining product information that supports, at the very least, "one-up/one-down” visibility of the product's movement through the distribution channel. The internal data and processes a company uses to track products is integrated into a larger system of external data exchange between trading partners. This enables food companies to work together to pinpoint and isolate affected product during a recall. 

There are three key standards trading partners adopt as the foundation for recall readiness. They include:

  1. Global Trade Item Number, a globally unique identifier of products can be recognized in all trading partner systems, even across geographic boundaries.
  2. Global Location Number, a globally unique identification number for supply chain partner locations such as a farm, manufacturing plant, a distributor's loading dock, or a restaurant location. They help a company record each stop a product has made in the supply chain.
  3. GS1-128 barcodes, when applied at the case level, enable companies to encode product identifiers as well as additional information such as batch/lot/serial numbers, best-by dates, variable weight information and more — key details that help companies isolate affected product during a recall.  


By implementing traceability programs, food companies are not only protecting guests from harm, they are protecting their reputations from lasting damage. Cost of food recalls in the U.S. exceeds $55 billion dollars per year, according to Ohio State University research, and this doesn't even take into account the long-term effects of reputational damage. Even if the supplier is responsible for paying the upfront costs associated with an outbreak, the brands and restaurants associated with them can be vilified from the consumer's perspective. 

Recent research from FoodLogiQ provided eye-opening information about how the consumer views a brand associated with a recall. One-half of consumers surveyed thought that a food company should be able to resolve a recall or foodborne illness within one to two days. This exposes a grave disparity in what the consumer expects and what is actually possible. We must work together to close the gap. 


Brands and foodservice operators can more proactively work with their supply chain partners to enable standards-based ecosystems and once and for all, break down the data silos that hinder effective traceability. Through this collaboration, industry stakeholders can more easily predict the course of action for a recall and even conduct mock recalls regularly so there are no surprises.

Ideally, manufacturers can help foodservice operators isolate product by their GTIN during a recall, and have batch/lot/serial numbers readily available to find out if more potentially affected product is on its way to a given location. For example, in just one recall, IPC/Subway estimated potential supplier savings of $419,000 by being able to accurately target 980 restaurants which had the impacted product in inventory, as opposed to unnecessarily investigating over 5,700 restaurants. This targeted recall is possible with the use GS1 Standards, including the GS1-128 barcode, which automatically captured extended product information to inform the entire recall process in real time. 

The bottom line is that traceability enhances consumer trust and protect your brand. No foodservice operator wants to risk being the next subject of damaging headlines in connection with a foodborne illness outbreak. Using the common language of standards, the entire community can adopt more proactive and efficient recall processes that protect the public from harm, and help avoid disastrous consequences in the future. 


Photo by iStock 

Topics: Business Strategy and Profitability, Communications, Customer Service / Experience, Financial News, Food & Beverage, Food Cost Management, Food Safety, Industry Services

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