In our hyper-connected, 24-hour news cycle world, consumers are increasingly aware of the rise in food recalls and want to know more about the food they consume.

The number of food recalls issued by USDA-FSIS increased in 2014 over previous years, and 2015 has already seen many widely publicized recalls in several categories. What consumers might not know is that even though there are more recalls, they are becoming more isolated and precise due to the proactive and standards-based approach toward improved food traceability. 

Identifying product quickly and accurately is paramount when public health is at stake, but it’s important to know that not all recalls happen for the same reason.

Recalls and withdrawals have various other causes, such as:

Undeclared allergens. A recall can occur when common ingredients that trigger allergic reactions (peanuts, certain spices, milk, wheat) have been accidentally included in a product, but not declared on the label. For example, many Canadian retailers are reacting to a manufacturer recall for ground cumin for containing undeclared almond, a known allergen. This is the leading cause of food recalls by the FDA, and accounted for 57% of recalls in the first quarter of 2015.

Physical contamination. This can trigger a recall when a foreign object not intended to be an ingredient ends up in the final product. Recently, 242,000 cases of macaroni and cheese boxes were recalled because they may have contained small pieces of metal—a textbook example of physical contamination.

Lack of proper inspection. While typically only responsible for a small percentage of recalls, many meats such as beef, chicken and pork can fall susceptible to lack of proper inspection. Experts believe the incidence of recalls at this level underscore how the food supply chain is a highly complicated international system, dependent on collaboration between government agencies and trading partners to protect food safety.

No matter what triggers a food recall, the food industry is taking the necessary steps to become more vigilant to prevent issues before they even start. Food industry stakeholders are evolving toward a system of better supply chain visibility that enables whole-chain traceability. More access to information about a product’s life cycle is enabling more efficient communication with retailers to limit the impact to customers. 

The concept of whole-chain traceability—being able to follow a product through the supply chain from its origin to the point of consumption—is a critical element of a recall, but it is only effective if all trading partners in the supply chain are utilizing a common language of standards for interoperability. The GS1 System of Standards allows companies to uniquely identify products in order to achieve supply chain visibility and efficiency along all stops in the product’s journey into the consumer’s shopping cart. Using unique product identification numbers, including the GS1 Global Trade Item Number (GTIN), companies around the world can uniquely identify trade items as well as supplementary information (expiration date, serial number, batch/lot number) to facilitate the communication of product-specific information whenever a barcode is scanned.

Trading partners can save on costs and reduce damage to their reputations by leveraging the power of standardsto quickly locate a potentially harmful product anywhere in the supply chain. Whole-chain traceability also reduces unnecessary discard of product, minimizes collateral damage to supply chain participants and consumers and reduces unforeseen legal fees, fines, forced renovations, lost contracts and loss of customer loyalty. For example, beef was one of the most recalled products in 2014. However, the use of GS1 standards in retail, based on the Traceability for Meat & Poultry U.S. Implementation Guide, enabled more efficient recalls and greatly minimized the impact to public safety in this category.

While progress is being made, there is still work to do. This is precisely why supply chain visibility—the foundation of enhanced traceability—is a key focus of the GS1 US Retail Grocery Initiative. Launched one year ago, the initiative is an industry collaboration that brings together leaders from grocery, fresh foods and consumer packaged goods to develop potential solutions to common industry challenges in an effort to drive more efficiencies, enhanced risk management and business growth. 

As part of the initiative, the Supply Chain Visibility Workgroup focuses specifically on driving broader industry adoption and implementation of GS1 standards to enhance supply chain visibility. This mix of participants—from manufacturers, suppliers, distributors, wholesalers, retailers and technology providers—will develop and deploy industry specific guidance and best practices for managing supply chain visibility and key business processes, including recall readiness, inventory management and others that depend on enhanced visibility.   

Ultimately, not all recalls cause long-lasting damage to a brand or bottom line if the proper systems and standards are in place to enable unique product identification and more precise traceability. Through further industry collaboration and better education about the benefits of supply chain visibility, the industry can put consumer concerns first with a proactive approach instead of simply reacting to a specific event.