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Traceability – Everyone has it …. Right?

Ray Connelly
Jun 1, 2020 10:52:50 AM

When I talk to people in the produce industry I continue to be told how we have traceability. Suppliers often tell me, “If there’s a recall, we can get our hands on the data within moments. We know exactly where everything came from and where it went to.”

If this is your company and you have said this, you are to be applauded. Good job! I suspect most senior leadership of fresh food companies will make this statement publicly and without hesitation.

However, why do I continue to hear that the FDA struggles to determine where things come from? How can it be that within an individual company there is "complete" traceability, but from an overall supply chain point of view, traceability is so difficult? I am talking about internal traceability vs external traceability.

Could it be that there are gaps just under the surface? Deficiencies we’re not seeing but still exist with the systems and processes trading partners employ? Gaps that perhaps we are not talking about? Is someone hiding something, or worse, being deceitful? The answer to this question requires a little digging…so let’s get out our shovels.

chain-missing-linkLet's take the point of view that there are gaps. But where are they?

As a baseline assumption for complete supply chain traceability to work, each company must be able to send GTINs/lot code information for each shipment to their customer. Also, each receiving company must be able to accept and receive those GTINs and lot codes from their supplier for each shipment. In a nutshell, sellers must send their information and buyers must be able to receive this information. Seems simple enough. This is one of the foundational pillars of whole supply chain traceability.

But while working with a large receiver, I called the help desk of their software provider, a popular software system used across the fresh produce industry. What they told me exposed a significant gap. When I asked, “Can I receive a supplier’s GTINs/lot codes in my system, the answer was a resounding, “Yes! You absolutely have the ability to enter GTINs and lot codes from your suppliers on each purchase order.” However, when I asked, “How do I do it?” the answer was difficult to swallow. The response was:

“Each GTIN for each product must be manually entered.”

This is a monumental task as this company receives numerous shipments per day. When proving a little deeper I asked if there was any ability to receive the data electronically. Their answer was:

“No, there is no ability to import the data from an inbound shipment. Nor is there any ability to electronically receive the data via any existing e-commerce system. If you want the data from the supplier, you must manually key each unique GTIN and each lot code(s) for each item on each purchase order.”

So, to put it another way, even if each case were adorned with beautifully printed PTI labels, the system must have the ability to send GTIN and lot codes with each shipment. And, if you are a buyer, broker, wholesaler, distributor or retailer, does your system let you electronically receive GTINs and lot codes from your supplier on each purchase order? If your answer is “No,” would you slow down your processes and manually enter each GTIN/lot into your receiving screen?

Let’s do the math on this.

woman-upset-toomuchworkLet’s say you were receiving a purchase order today and you had purchased five different items. Each item came from two different lots. So, that would be 5 items x 1 GTIN/item x 2 lots each. Now, if each GTIN is 14 digits and each lot code is 10 digits that is 1,400 keystrokes per purchase order! Reading and manually typing a cryptic 14-digit GTIN and a complex lot code would be extremely error-prone and take a huge amount of time!

I’m afraid this is the reality of many of the obsolete systems in use today. They say they can meet the needs of supply chain traceability, but if you look deeper they simply — and quietly — cannot deliver on the demands for whole supply-chain traceability.

This is one real-world gap I have seen, and gaps like this secretly exist all throughout the supply chain. With antiquated systems pervasive throughout our fresh food supply chain, it is not hard to understand why we have not yet achieved full supply chain traceability.

It’s time for a change. We need new systems, we need upgraded systems, but we also need to take a clear and honest look if we have the proper tools in place to truly support whole supply chain traceability. This is but one of many overlooked areas that currently exist within the supply chain.

Yes, our supply chain, the one where everyone already has traceability.

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