January 2008 | Commentary | IT Matters

Tracing the Genealogy of a Food Recall

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Anyone who has ever tried to trace their roots back more than a few generations knows how challenging that task can be. Unless you're of royal lineage, the path back through history tends to be lined with false leads and dead ends.

If you do find any information, it's often on handwritten notes that you have to painstakingly sort through and review to glean the information you need.

This is the same challenge food processors can face when a problem with end products that use produce arises. Tracing the lot back through handwritten ledgers to the grower, block, and field to discover what other products may have been affected is a painstaking and costly effort.

And all it takes is one zero that looks like a six in one entry to send the entire investigation in the wrong direction, creating delays in performing a recall and increasing your company's exposure.

Moving Forward

Tracing that lot forward to all the products in which the bad produce was used can be an equally daunting, transaction-heavy task involving multiple receipts, bills of lading, purchase orders, and other paperwork.

A new generation of enterprise software designed specifically to meet the needs of food and beverage processors can help solve these issues. Data on each lot received—such as grower, field, and date—is entered once.

This data is then maintained throughout the manufacturing cycle in a manner that's compatible with the way food is processed, providing a precise lineage for every finished product.

Should a problem arise, simply specifying the grower, field, and associated date range retrieves the appropriate lots and constructs the entire history in minutes rather than hours, allowing you to act quickly and decisively when it's needed most.

In any type of endeavor where record-keeping is required, the biggest risk is human error. Even if someone enters the correct information, it doesn't mean it will be legible to the person trying to read it.

Double Whammy

No matter the cause, the impact of a mistake is two-fold. First, you won't be able to recall all the products with problems - at least not right away. It will take time to find and decipher the entry; it may even require finding the operator who made the entry to determine what it says.

All this could put you well beyond the four hours the Food and Drug Administration mandates for a recall. If the error is bad enough, you may even miss a few lots.

Another problem with manual tracking is that you may recall products that are perfectly safe, which costs you unnecessarily. It reduces your overall margins and ties resources up in tracking, shipping, and receiving products that don't need to be handled again.

This manner of tracking could also hurt a food company's brand image by associating it needlessly with a product recall.

Salad Days for Spinach

The September 2006 spinach recall illustrates the problems associated with lot tracking. Because spinach from a single field was used to make products under a variety of brand names, the ties between the brands were not readily apparent.

It was only after exhaustive transaction tracing that the common bond was uncovered and the problem contained - a process that took nearly one week. In the meantime, many unaffected batches of spinach, as well as some forms of lettuce, disappeared from grocers' shelves in the interest of safety.

With the right software performing end-to-end management you can not only eliminate manual data entry but also track product lineage based on the way your food-processing plant works, for instance by viewing batches within a shift or between clean-ups as a single batch.

That way if a problem with a timeframe or project crops up, you can trace it back quickly and easily to all products made during that assignment, minimizing the use of resources and eliminating additional transactional costs. You can just as easily trace issues forward to all products made from a compromised batch.

Using enterprise software with date-based, extended lot-trace functionality to tie finished goods to the batches from which they're produced provides all the information you need to trace ingredients back to the farm or forward to grocers' shelves.

The minute a bad finished product is identified, you can run a report that shows where the ingredients in the batches came from, when the batches were used, and where the finished products went.

Crisis Averted

Automating the process takes much of the risk out of batch tracing while improving your organization's ability to respond in a crisis. It puts you in better control of the data, ensuring you have timely, accurate information within minutes of placing the request.

Implementing the right food logistics software solution can make you the envy of genealogists - and competitors - everywhere.

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