Why they’re important
In the tracking of food products, there is value in carrying through the manufacturer’s lot number on raw materials you purchase for further processing, as well as for buy/sell items you purchase and resell. While traceability only requires you to track one up and one down in your supply chain, as a provider of food products you are ultimately held responsible for the safety of the food products you sell. Your brand and your reputation, as well as the safety of your customers depend on your ability to recall any products of concern quickly.
If you are a wholesaler or distributor of food products you may buy directly from manufacturers or you may buy through brokers or other wholesalers. If, when you receive products at your facility you assign a new lot number to the product, and if your supplier recalls the product, you will need to cross reference your receiving documents with the date you received the product and the lot numbers your supplier shipped to you. If you can’t determine what you made with that product or where you sent the identified lots, you’ll be recalling all possible products that could have been in contact with that product.
The potential cost of this approach is time, money and reputation; time to assemble the required information to initiate a recall, increased cost if you can’t narrow the recall and have to widen it to call back a larger portion of product and reputation, because if your customers feel there is a time delay from them hearing about a recall in the media and you notifying them, there is a loss of trust in your company.
If you didn’t buy the product direct from the manufacturer, and your supplier, whether a broker or wholesaler, created their own lot number for the product when they handled the product, the lot numbers you have from them could similarly be meaningless when it comes to assisting you in recall. If your supplier’s number is not reflective of the manufacturer’s original lot number, you will have some work to do. While this practice is a fully legitimate and often used method of lot tracking up and down the supply chain, it can cause extensive time delays for you when a manufacturer issues a recall and your business has or had some product from that manufacturer but you can’t easily determine if what you have or had in stock was part of the recall.
Let’s look at a recent Canadian recall example to understand why you might try to use the manufacturer’s lot number in future. XL Foods, in Alberta, slaughtered over a third of Canada’s beef at the time of their big ground beef recall in September and October of 2012. As one of the largest companies in this business in Canada, they sold to large processors, but also to wholesalers who sold the product to smaller processors and smaller wholesalers. XL Foods issued their recall based on the packed on date. This date was embedded in the EAN128 bar codes on each catch weight case of product.
While XL used the GS1 application identifier 21 for recording the serial number of each case (since each case carried a unique weight) they did not recall based on those serial numbers. Those cases had found their way into the coolers and freezers of processors and distributors nationwide.
If you were a smaller processor who used a scanning system to receive those cases into your facility, and if your software allowed you to search for product by the manufacturer sku and packed on date, you were in good shape to quickly search your inventory for any remaining cases.
If you were a processor that has a strong traceability system which records what raw materials went into what finished goods, and then what finished goods went to what customers, again you were in good shape to quickly determine any of your affected finished products and customers to quickly notify them.
If however, you don’t scan raw materials or you reassign a new lot number, you would have had two time consuming steps to undertake. First you would have to review paperwork to determine what of your suppliers carry that brand and when those suppliers shipped you any of that sku of product, further looking for what lot number you reassigned to each of those receiving documents, and then going into your coolers and freezers looking to see if you still had any of that product searching case by case for the affected packed on dates.
Once determining if you had any bad product still in your warehouse, you would need to review your production records to determine if you used any of that internally assigned lot number for that sku in production, and what finished products you made from that.
Once you knew your finished goods affected, you would need to determine which of your customers received any of those finished good lots. If you couldn’t pull all that together, your other option would have been to recall every product you have produced since that date which may have contained any of the recalled beef.
Flow of information
In this day and age of recall information flowing through the media so quickly, when your customers often know of a concern at the same time you do, your time in either reassuring them they have safe product vs. quickly telling them they have product you are recalling, affects your brand and reputation. The more consistent and direct you can make the link of your lot numbers to the original manufacturer, the faster and more accurately you will be able to respond to a manufacturer recall. It’s that simple.
Making the decision
So ask yourself, why am I re-assigning lot numbers? If the answer is because it’s always been done that way, or because you’re recording system can’t handle the lot number length or format of the manufacturer, or if you think it will slow down receiving too much, perhaps it’s time to rethink your system.
Your reputation rests on you being able to issue your own recall quickly and definitively. When a company issues a recall, and expands it to include more and new lots daily, they look bad. They look like they don’t know what they were doing or worse that they could have been hiding something and knew more than they shared, neither of which is an impression that you want your customers to have about you.
Do yourself a favour and, whenever possible, use the manufacturer’s lot number for products you receive. If your supplier tries to cover up the manufacturer’s lot with their own label, tell them to put their label somewhere else on the case, information management is a key to business success and the more information you have the better, and faster, you can respond.