"The first information you want is when you receive material at the front door," explains Anass Bennani, information systems manager for Michael Angelo's. "Ingredients must be trackable."
The company records the supplier's lot number as soon as it receives a shipment - or as soon after received product has been determined to be within standard. When an ingredient enters production, its lot number is linked to formula and production data.
The manufacturer also enters a local lot number for the production run. This identification may carry with it such information as expiration date, "best before" date, job number and other useful, if not critical, information.
Information must flow evenly with the product, and a good system will track every movement and every component. Traceability requires that the entire supply chain be transparent and that an entire product history reads as current so that if bacteria have made their way into an ingredient, the tracks are evident.
Tracing a product effectively requires input - accurate input - at every significant step through the supply chain.
"Some of the technologies, like RFID, are expensive and still advancing," says RQA's Mithen. "All that is required right now is provability. You can come out with a three-ring binder if it can provide proof."
How long your loose-leaf pages will suffice is a matter of speculation.
Insurance companies are beginning to assert their influence on the food industry as they have on the medical profession. "The insurance industry is not interested in taking a huge loss because a company is not equipped to trace and track," says Mithen. "So they are driving much of the improvement in systems. Processors know that to get insurance premiums down, they must show that they have minimized risk."
And while technologies such as bar coding and RFID facilitate product tracing, they are only as good as the work system they are built upon.
"As a general rule, it's â€˜garbage in, garbage out,'" says Bennani. "You want to make sure your system is perfect, that you have your procedures in place and your people trained before you apply your technologies. Otherwise you are just making errors more quickly!"
Another user of the Ross system, Berner Foods, a leading manufacturer of private label cheese products, has used the system to help it comply with current and future regulations regarding product tracing and tracking and to improve customer satisfaction levels. Company sources claim mock product recalls, which formerly took up to an entire day to conduct, can now be executed in 30 minutes.
Part of your factory data
Thorough traceability requires long reach into the supply chain. But a lot of the effort starts with and can be facilitated by your own factory floor data.
Rockwell Software is launching its RSBizWare software this season. The new tracking and tracing software will provide "dock-to-dock product tracking," according to a Rockwell spokesperson. RSBiz receives raw material and production order downloads, and it automatically validates transaction data, providing an "audit trail" of these transactions. It facilitates information updates during system handoffs with standard transactions for tracking work in process activities, inventory activities, work order management and item consumption. Genealogy data is added at each stage of the production cycle.
"Putting a mark on a product is step one from a manufacturing perspective. If you have a beef product, you could be putting a chip in a calf the day it is born to achieve full traceability," says Bill Arnold, partner business manager for Omron Electronics (www.omron.com), Schaumburg, Ill. Omron markets vision inspection, bar code, 2D code and RFID systems and integration software. "That is the scenario we seem to be moving toward as we face mad cow and bird flu diseases. We will want to pinpoint any source of disease from the feed lot or even a breeding herd."
Throwing a net over problem product is a tricky challenge. The key is to narrow the products implicated as tainted, not up to spec or otherwise candidates for elimination with maximum safety and minimum cost. The more critical information a product has carried with it, the better the chances of meeting these objectives.
Usage date and lot code information are fundamental on individual products, as is the standard stock keeping unit (SKU). Case identification is also critical, as a particular product characteristic that is the object of a search may be confined to a specific case or set of cases. Other information might include plant of manufacture, date of manufacture, thermal history and more.
The almost universal employment of bar coding technology has made it the obvious choice for the gathering and transfer of other information deemed critical to tracing food products today. The problem is you can only get so much information on a label!
Omron has emphasized improved optical character recognition and verification systems for increasingly accurate label reading despite the pressure to add more information to labels. But many believe that more advanced technologies like RFID, which picks up electronic product code (EPC) information embedded on chips or other materials placed on cases, cartons or pallets via radio waves, may be necessary to carry the information necessary to blanket the supply chain.
"With RFID, we can have information on a product for every point in time - where it was made, while it was being shipped, when it sat in the warehouse," says Arnold. "We can determine how many locations this lot went to and can notify people if there is a problem with a particular lot."
But even RFID tags can run out of room. When that happens, use the Internet. "I think the biggest change may be in the marriage of RFID and the Internet," says Sujeet Chand, vice president of advanced technology and chief technology of Rockwell. "Maybe all you need to store on an RFID chip is a URL where all the needed information is stored." And of course, Chand points out, it's not enough to read the data, but also the meta data.