SUMMARY OF THE LACTALIS AFFAIR
For retailers to be informed of a product withdrawal-recall, they have the barcode, the batch number and the expiry date. Each such item of information is to be found in different places and is printed using diverse techniques on the packaging, making it difficult to conduct the withdrawal-recall at checkout in the store.
In concrete terms, when Lactalis wanted to withdraw the batches concerned by the contamination, through a lapse in food safety, the withdrawal demands went from several thousand units to millions of units between 2 December 2017 and 18 January 2018. For each product, withdrawal information was associated with a certain number of references, batches or expiry dates.
The withdrawal operation gave rise to a series of PDF documents, with a 15-page listing that would have had to be made available to all checkout, nursery, hospital or pharmacy systems. The failure of the withdrawal procedure, initiated on account of the food safety problem, showed up the deficiencies of the various distribution circuits and the incapacity of those involved to identify the right products.
This therefore resulted in claims and litigation, since contaminated products were sold despite the product’s withdrawal. Lactalis found itself forced to withdraw the entire product line from the shelves in January, amounting to tens of millions of units.
In other words, product identification is useful, but different types of printing and non-automated listings constitute a sticking point. The product withdrawals were delayed because it was practically impossible to detect the right batches.
WHAT ARE THE SOLUTIONS FOR GUARANTEEING FOOD AND HEALTH SAFETY?
The objective is to succeed in merging within a single ID both reference and batch, without having to scatter the references over the packaging.
The EAN barcode appeared in 1973, with the purpose of automating checkout operations. It was possible to associate price with barcode, thereby speeding up the process. Third-party software subsequently used this coding for the general public, in particular via mobile apps.
A possible upgrade to the system involves exceeding the linear code barrier, which can only contain several digits. A possible candidate to replace the barcode from 1973 could be the GS1 Digital Link, which is a QR Code. This new mechanism contains an identifier whose format is the same as that of the barcode. When it is read, it is therefore possible to find the product ID and associate it with a price.
There is also a URL link enabling any brand to link it to its content, along with the use-by date, batch number, or even the serial number of a specific object. The advent of the Digital Link would lead to two main changes:
- Scanners need to be capable of reading the code and interpreting it
- The code needs to be produced
Instead of choosing a QR code for purely marketing purposes, brands can also benefit from the product reference via this link. This gives them a better association with the digitally-printed content.
For the Lactalis affair, we know that the withdrawal-recall procedure posed a problem on account of insufficient technical resources. Yet these resources do exist and can be used by both retailers / brands and by consumers (for obtaining information).
For major brands, marking does not constitute too significant an extra cost, although more serious consideration needs to go into its implications for smaller manufacturers. The impact of the software change on the checkout desk is minor, yet it must be ensured that smaller traders are not excluded from the system.
Today, there are labels on which a single number can serve both for quality control in traceability and as a medium for organising games and competitions. It is possible to merge all these systems into a single identifier, with the QR code. For example, a packager delivering to several retailers can manage its references and distribution circuits in centralised fashion.
In replacing the barcode with the QR code, the various departments of companies will need to adapt their information systems (logistics, marketing, promotion manager and retail circuits). Furthermore, the choice of a standard used internationally is a far from trivial one, since no other initiative would be shared by so many brands and retailers.
The Digital Link would enable a food safety incident of the Lactalis type to be stopped in its tracks, by detecting batches rather than product references. The first candidates for deployment would be infant milk and high-risk products, aimed mainly at children.