Recall Logistics: The Value of Information

Massive recalls—such as the contaminated romaine lettuce in summer 2018 that led to the deaths of five people—provide some lessons helpful to anyone facing a future recall.

With any recall, the first step is alerting the public and removing any harmful product from store shelves and customers’ homes. Unlike the romaine lettuce recall, the majority of recalled products will not receive media attention. How can customers learn about the recalls?

Customer registration. If customers have registered the products, it is easy for companies to notify them of the recall. For most consumer products, however, registration levels have historically been low. For many recalled products, such as light bulbs and phone chargers, no registration process is likely to exist. Same for food products.

Point-of-sale serial number/lot code collection. If retailers record the serial number of every item as it is sold, they could identify the purchasers. However, this typically involves scanning a second barcode on the packaging, which means additional cost.

Recall websites. Theoretically, customers could periodically check the Food and Drug Administration and Consumer Safety Product Commission websites to see if any products they use have been recalled.

As the logistics of the recall unfolds, another important activity is making sure no one else is affected. This involves finding the ultimate cause of the unsafe condition and looking for all other places the item may have been used.

Sometimes this is easy, but often it is not. To more quickly identify the sources of future infections, more and better recordkeeping is needed as products move through the supply chain.

The Holy Grail of Single Scan

Capturing the serial number or lot code at the point of sale would allow a manufacturer to contact every customer who had purchased an affected item. Scanning a second barcode with that information requries too much additional labor to be practical, but if a single barcode could store and scan both the UPC and serial number, and/or lot code, that information could be captured at no additional cost.

Containing the serial number or lot code in an easy-to-scan barcode would also give customers the ability to scan barcodes on their food products to see if they had been recalled. In fact, if RFID costs ever become low enough to be used on food products, a customer’s smart refrigerator could constantly download the most recent list of recalls and notify the customer about any recalled items inside.

Conventional one-dimensional (1D) barcodes cannot store the UPC and lot code or serial number in one barcode. However, two-dimensional (2D) barcodes, such as QR codes and Data Matrix codes, are capable of storing thousands of characters and could easily do the job. A lack of standardization has prevented such a system from being implemented.

Recently, the Standards Committee of the Reverse Logistics Association (RLA) created an open standard for storing UPCs, serial numbers, lot codes, and any other information in a 2D barcode. It has been given the 12N designation as part of the MH10.8.2 standard, and is ISO 15434 compliant.

The RLA hopes that this open standard will help companies not only pursue recalls more effectively, but also improve customer service more broadly.

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