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Q-and-A: NRA’s Scott DeFife on GS1 US Standards and traceability’s role in food safety

6 min read

Restaurant and Foodservice

Even though National Food Safety Month is coming to a close, it’s important to remember that food safety is critical during every month of the year, at every stage of foodservice operations. Traceability along the supply chain is essential to food safety, and barcodes and other technology are making it easier than ever for suppliers and restaurants to communicate.

The Foodservice GS1 US Standards Initiative was launched in 2009 by 55 founding foodservice companies, the National Restaurant Association and others to drive waste out of the supply chain, enhance food product information for restaurant buyers, and lay the foundation for traceability and food safety. The goal of the Initiative is for 75% of the industry (measured by revenue) to adopt GS1 Standards for product/location identification and data sharing by 2015.

I interviewed Scott DeFife, executive vice president of policy and government affairs for the National Restaurant Association, about why NRA joined the initiative and how it and other programs can affect traceability and food safety.

Why did the National Restaurant Association decide to join the Foodservice GS1 US Standards Initiative?  

The Foodservice GS1 US Standards Initiative is the type of activity we should be supporting because of its critical importance in supply chain management.  The relationships between operators, their distributors and suppliers are some of the most fundamental business relationships in the industry. The National Restaurant Association can help advance traceability capabilities within the industry, and support restaurant owners and operators with the food safety and inventory management tools GS1 provides.  GS1 will help the supply chain be more efficient and may help fulfill potential regulatory requirements in the future.

It’s National Food Safety Month — how critical is traceability when it comes to food safety?

Restaurant owners and operators need to be aware of what’s in their food and where exactly it comes from.  This is vital information in the event of bacterial or foreign material contamination from the grower, manufacturer, or distributor,  which could cause foodborne illness outbreaks and pose other risks to restaurant customers.  Should this happen, the restaurant becomes a critical source of information and can make a difference for public health.  Traceability for the food ingredients and products that come into restaurants matters for food safety, and for the protection of restaurant owners and operators.

GS1 Standards and the technologies associated with traceability information systems help the restaurant industry advance traceability capabilities in a cooperative and voluntary manner.  Traceability may or may not become a regulatory requirement, but GS1 supports a restaurant’s ability to manage their supply chain information, and that’s a positive for the industry and public health.

Furthermore, we know that these standards and technologies will also help meet consumer needs for better information, such as nutrition and allergen information. This is of growing importance among consumers, and currently the highlight of our National Food Safety Month campaign.

How can the foodservice initiative help improve traceability?

Tracing products through the supply chain using GS1 Standards and barcodes helps identify and isolate products in the event of a foodborne disease incident and will support everyday inventory management.  Food recalls are faster and more accurate.  It will protect the safety of food served in restaurants, while reducing waste and inefficiencies involved in a recall procedure.  It will also help to improve the efficiency of inventory control.  Our participation in the Foodservice GS1 US Standards Initiative is helping our owners and operators with their supply chain management and inventory control, and it will protect them in the event of a foodborne disease outbreak.

How will FSMA impact restaurants and traceability?

FDA is in the process of releasing the regulatory proposals needed to implement FSMA.  The Act did not include restaurants and other foodservice establishments in its language.  However, the door was left open to possibly include them in the scope of traceability requirements, if deemed necessary for effective implementation of the law.

FSMA’s requirements are directed at food growers, processors, importers, and distributors. These requirements for preventive controls and produce safety for domestic and foreign suppliers, importers and distributors have the potential to improve the safety of foods arriving at the back door of restaurants, but may also impact their price.  It’s important that we work together with our suppliers to ensure that FSMA’s impacts on restaurants and the food we serve to customers is all positive.

Do you see menu-labeling legislation having an impact on restaurants?

We believe we will see the regulations by the fourth quarter this year, or early 2014 at the latest. It’s important for restaurants to know that by adopting GS1 Standards and using the Global Data Synchronization Network (GDSN), they will be able to access nutrition, allergen, and ingredient information more rapidly and with greater precision.  This is important information for customers and could help restaurant owners and operators comply with pending menu-labeling regulations.

What are some of the supply chain benefits of adopting GS1 Standards?

GS1 Standards have multiple benefits for the different supply chain partners. Manufacturers and distributors can better track orders on a real-time basis as well as more efficiently manage the logistics involved in the supply chain and distribution channels.

In the restaurants, traceability technologies along with GS1 Standards will help manage inventories of ingredients and products.  Traceability will speed and facilitate the accurate identification and removal of food involved in a recall or withdrawal of any nature.  It will produce savings for operators through better inventory management, helping to reduce or eliminate waste and increase the efficiency of the inventory ordering and replenishment process.

What are the main challenges with adoption?

One of the biggest challenges currently — as with anything in the technology space — is making the capital investments needed for implementation. This includes buying the necessary equipment, such as proper scanners and software.  There is also a great investment needed for training in the restaurant and with distribution partners and others who support inventory management.

We’re giving this issue a lot of attention in our supply chain management executive study group.  As a result, it’s fair to say that GS1 Standards adoption is likely going to happen more quickly for the larger businesses — at first.  However, we will continue working along with the GS1 community to support local chains and independent operators to discover the same benefits.

What should restaurants do right now when it comes to GS1 and the foodservice initiative?

We urge restaurant owners and operators to learn about GS1 Standards and traceability tools.  The National Restaurant Association will continue to develop an educational plan to inform operators about the Foodservice GS1 US Standards Initiative and its benefits. In the meantime, operators can begin talking with distributors and suppliers about how they can collectively use GS1 Standards and work together for implementation.  Simply having restaurant owners and operators more aware of this Initiative and beginning to talk to their partners about GS1 is a great first step right now.