We’ve all experienced it: the FDA announces a food recall due to illness, and as we recognize the familiar product, we end up rifling through our pantry or refrigerator to examine the best by date or lot code on the packaging. These codes, printed on most food and other consumable products, may seem cryptic or even random to the average person. However, they serve very important purposes, both to food companies and to the food system at large.
When a food safety emergency occurs, a lot code may be the most important piece of information for government authorities and industry. Traceback and traceforward investigations are used to locate the potentially hazardous food product in the supply chain and take actions to prevent the public from consuming it.
In September 2020, the FDA proposed the new rule as a part of the Food Safety Modernization Act, which instructs the FDA to develop additional recordkeeping requirements for certain foods to help establish streamline tracing of a food product’s pedigree when needed to address food safety risks and emergencies. This proposed rule, when finalized, would implement a key component of the food safety law referred to as “Requirements for Additional Traceability Records for Certain Foods”, which specifies particular importance to lot codes assigned at harvest and “transformation” (i.e. processing) events, deemed “Traceability Lot Codes” for the purposes of the regulation. See my previous article here on the rule.
Underpinning this systemic approach to tracing food, is the unique identification of food products on a production lot level. Combining a class level identification, such as those encoded on barcodes, with a lot code pertaining to that product’s particular production run, give two vital pieces of information for understanding where a product was distributed at what times.
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To give an analogy, think of how a person’s name is constructed. Names are used to fairly uniquely identify a person (though the overall goal of person’s names is not meant to be completely unique). My name, Thomas Burke, is constructed first through my provenance to the “Burke Family”. I was then given a first and middle name to denote my particular production run (i.e. birth). This is not a perfect comparison, but it gives some insight into having a broad identifier that corresponds to a product class (i.e. bagged lettuce made by XYZ company) with a string of numbers and letters which is printed elsewhere to denote production run information.
“Lot codes become important when products are implicated for recall, when lot codes help to identify the unique product codes that need to be removed. Once the product codes are known CTE data will let folks know where to find the problematic products,” said Bruce A. Welt, Ph.D., Professor of Agricultural and Biological Engineering at the University of Florida.
Impacts on Packaging
When you look at a product’s packaging, you see all sorts of logos, certifications, claims, and machine-readable identifiers like barcodes and QR codes. Some of these have regulatory purposes, some are marketing, some are for logistical purposes, and some have a mix of all 3.
According to a column by Claire Sand, Ph.D., owner of Packaging Technology and Research and Gazelle Mobile Packaging, “Intelligent packaging and now the Internet of Packaging (IoP) have been fueled by the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) and more specifically and recently by the FDA proposed rule, “Requirements for Additional Traceability Records for Certain Foods” slated to be Section 204(d) of the FSMA.” She added “In the field of IoP, blockchain and other tracing technologies deter food fraud, allow food safety infractions to be rapidly resolved, and provide consumers with product-related details. Tracing the source of food safety outbreaks saves lives and money since the timeframe to trace an outbreak decreases from 6 weeks to 2 seconds using IoP.”
As the FDA works to enhance food safety mitigation and traceability efforts, its important for those across the food industry to understand the direction of lot code practices and regulations. Their vitality in accelerating food tracebacks is well documented, and technology will only better our ability to efficiently locate products in supply chain systems to increased levels of granularity, improving the system for consumers rifling through their cabinets and companies who make and distribute these products.
Source: Thanks https://www.forbes.com/sites/thomasburke/2021/02/25/lot-codes-for-food-tracing-how-are-they-used/