Handle with care

Innovative coding options, social media and task management software can help smooth the product recall process.

By Deena M. Amato-McCoy

When the spinach re­call hit several years ago, the industry struggled to get the word out to customers and retailers. There was some confusion and delays in pulling product off the shelves in some areas. But when the health of shoppers is in play, every moment counts.

The pace of recalls does not seem to be slowing. In the first three months of 2010, there were 405 reported food recalls, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Admini­stration. There were a total of 510 for all of 2009, according to the FDA.

To handle the influx of recalls, supermarkets are investing in innovative solutions to better manage the process and protect shoppers and their operations, according to industry observers.

Better data management

Recalls can cost retailers and suppliers money, time and the trust of their customers if not handled properly. “They are unpredictable, and when they do occur, they require a big portion of the retailer’s workforce to stop what they were doing, pull the product off the shelf, and put up informational signage,” says Murtaza Ghadyali, vice president of product management for Dedham, Mass.-based workforce management/task execution software provider Reflexis Systems.

The reasons for recalls are varied—from problems in the fields to issues in manufacturing. Recalls of fresh recalls are also often linked to spoilage in the cold chain. “There is a lack of control when it comes to spoilage,” says Pankaj Shukla, director of business development for RFID, Motorola Enterprise Mobility division, based in Holtsville, N.Y.

“There are $80 million that can be recuperated annually if the proper technology is deployed in the cold chain,” he says. “While chains do invest in time and temperature indicators, there is a high cost of implementation and maintenance.”

Managing these recalls has proven to be tougher than expected, according to industry experts. Many say previous mass recalls could have been avoided if there was a more robust level of detail. In the case of the spinach recall, for example, growers could have narrowed down the specific fields that were affected rather than pulling all spinach off the shelves if more data were collected and available.

“If grocers can pinpoint what they sold, what shelf it was on and the lot it was shipped from, the process would be much easier to contain,” says Dave Peddemors, vice president North American sales for Psion Teklogix, based in Mississauga, Ontario, Canada. “Without these details, the process becomes vast and complicated.”

The other issue is that retailers tend to remain SKU-focused, a factor that makes it difficult to track down specific merchandise. “Grocers need to be able to track merchandise down to a lot number or manufacturer date versus a SKU number,” explains Taylor Smith, director of product management, scanning division, Honeywell Scanning and Mobility, based in Blackwood, N.J.

In some cases, chains fail to have the proper controls and technologies in place, forcing them to rely on manual, paper-based operations. Besides causing huge paper trails, retailers are drowning in inefficient data and racking up hundreds of hours of labor to track where recalled merchandise ended up within the supply chain.

“When you consider the issues the industry has faced over the last couple of years, such as salmonella and listeria across meat, produce and even peanut butter, it is a lot to handle,” Smith says.

“To make matters worse however, these products are being shipped from all over the world. Retailers may know their SKUs through inventory management systems, but if they have to rely on physically inspecting and testing merchandise, identifying specific manufacturing lot or batch numbers and manually reporting results, things become labor intensive.”

Doing more at the store

While having a clearer view of the entire supply chain is critical, many supermarkets are beginning to take proactive steps to better manage food recalls from the inside, according to industry executives.

The grocery industry has been reliant on bar coding for more than 30 years, but due to a lack of information, this is not the best way to manage recalls. Typically, barcodes hold data such as product type and manufacturer, but these are not enough to manage a recall.

“Grocers need to understand which factory the item was produced in or farm it was sourced from, the date it was produced and shipped, and at each point it was handled across the supply chain,” says Shukla. “This detail can help a grocer efficiently pull product from a store shelf to keep the public safe and at the same time, not introduce unnecessary cost and panic. The key is to isolate the problem.”

By leveraging the power of global trade item numbers this process becomes much easier. GTIN numbers may be 8, 12, 13 or 14 digits long, and include expanded information such as packaging level, item reference numbers, and a unique identifier to pinpoint the item in a database. It also enables retailers to locate the item at any point in the supply chain.

“When a load of meat arrives at retail for example, GTINs help a grocer identify the merchandise back to the herd or was cultivated on, or in the case of produce, the field it was grown on,” says Peddemors. “It is a feasible way to link disparate points in the supply chain and third party logistics distributors as well.”

Doing more digitally

As more emphasis is being put on these “track and trace” capabilities, the industry is renewing its interest in electronic product codes and radio frequency identification technologies.

By embedding electronic product codes within RFID tags, the technology becomes a clear alternative to traditional barcodes. As RFID-enabled readers or handheld computers are placed in proximity to an RFID tag, a unique identification number is transmitted back to a computer system that verifies the information within seconds, as well as to the reader or handheld device.

While this technology can be affixed to pallets and cases, they are also finding their way onto specific items, including livestock.

“RFID tags can be found on ear tags worn by cattle, for example,” explains Honeywell’s Smith. “This helps distributors trace specific animals, farms even specific cuts of meats not only up through the cold chain but also back to down to their origin.”

The Food and Drug Administration is so bullish on the technology that it hopes to enforce track and trace requirements among some bills awaiting approval.

The technology is also the perfect complement to temperature sensors within trucks transporting fresh foods to their final destination. The truth is many things can happen as fresh merchandise travels across the country, across extreme temperatures, even in temperature-controlled vehicles.

“That’s why it is important to monitor just how well those temperature controls are working. RFID could be the ideal way to monitor the temperature from point to point,” Psion’s Peddemors says.

Getting social

As recalls increase, so does consumer awareness. As more customer segments get Web-savvy, it is becoming easier to learn about specific recalls. This can work to a retailer’s disadvantage, however.

“In some cases, consumers tend to know more than store employees,” says Reflexis’ Ghadyali. “Consumers are less forgiving of brands and food categories in the case of recalls. It may take months or years to win back their trust.”

Realizing they have to respond to recalls quickly and efficiently, and provide accurate information to customers on a timely basis, some chains are considering web-based tools.

Social media usage is also turning the tides. “The evening news and radio news is not ideal to inform consumers,” says Motorola’s Shukla. “Having a medium such as Facebook or Twitter can help a retailer quickly and vastly spread the details consumers need regarding recalls.”

Task management

Despite the increasing usage of social media, the bold truth is not every consumer is on Facebook or Twitter, and very well may never be. And those who do use social media applications may not log in every day.

This is why retailers have to be absolutely certain they are also informing their customers directly at store-level. That said, it is imperative that store employees are aware of all details regarding a recall, including SKU product codes and batch numbers. By leveraging task management solutions, grocers are helping their front line associates do just this.

Task management is a proven way to keep store-level associates on top of daily operations. These web-based solutions coordinate store-level tasks and allow local and regional managers stay abreast of operations, even if they are away from the store, according to industry observers.

The process works similarly to manage recalls. A notice appears on the store manager-on-duty’s dashboard or smart phone as a priority task. All the information about the recall, including signage that should be posted to inform consumers, is included and available for review.

“As a task is complete, managers in each store check off the recall task, then corporate can monitor compliance levels in real-time,” Reflexis’ Ghadyali says. “Rather than reading through hundreds or thousands of emails, corporate executives can manage the process by exception, focusing only on the stores that haven’t completed the steps.”

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