All Articles Food Restaurant and Foodservice What would life be like without bar codes?

What would life be like without bar codes?

4 min read

Restaurant and Foodservice

Mary Wilson is vice president of standards management for GS1 US. In this guest post, she imagines what life — or an industry — would be like without bar codes and explains how the foodservice industry is seeking same standards used for the retail and grocery industries.

While the bar code’s history dates back to the fifties, it wasn’t until the 1970s that the Universal Product Code became the grocery and retail industry’s standard for product identification. Wrigley’s gum was the first company to include a bar code on its product. Kmart later brought the technology to the masses — and to the retail industry — refusing to work with manufacturers unless they adhered to the Uniform Code Council standards for product identification and labeling.

Nowadays, it’s hard to imagine buying groceries without having a cashier scan each product at the register. Bar codes — and more importantly, the standardized numbering systems that support them — make it possible for consumers to not only purchase different products, but also return products, use coupons, even find out more about products by using our smartphones as scanners. The time has finally come for the foodservice industry to reap those benefits.

Major food companies have been using bar codes in their retail/grocery business for years. Now, they want to see the same standards for product identification and bar codes applied to the foodservice business. Through the Foodservice GS1 US Standards Initiative, we at GS1 US (formerly the UCC) have been working hard to develop and finalize the standards needed for identifying the hundreds of thousands of foodservice products on the market, as well as for the bar-coding process already under way.

Bar codes on products make it easy to track foodservice products. Today, without bar codes, an employee tracking inventory at a typical distribution center must look at every carton coming into the warehouse and manually document the product to know where it came from, when it was produced, and when it expires. With the GS1-128 bar code, however, the distributor (not to mention the courier and end-user/operator) will be able to scan each case using a handheld scanning device. In addition to simply identifying the manufacturer of the product (through a unique company prefix) and the product at hand (using Global Trade Item Numbers, or GTINs), the scan will also capture the manufacturer’s lot number which can be tied to where the food product was produced, the date it was produced and the expiration date.

The need for food traceability is more urgent than ever; the Food Safety Modernization Act requires the development of industry regulations to improve our food system. Per FSMA, the FDA is looking for electronic records so in the event of an outbreak, companies can respond within 24 hours on where the product came from, where it went, or where it is in the supply chain. This is the foundation of the GS1 Standards for identifying, capturing, and sharing product information in the foodservice supply chain. Good thing we’re already working on it.

With GS1 Standards, if there is a recall, a restaurant could scan the product on hand, say French fries, and instantly pull up the batch lot information. At that point, they would only need to recall the French fries from the tainted batch, not all of the inventory on their shelves. This would also apply to tomatoes, burgers, lettuce, milk — anything the restaurant buys.

Inventory visibility would also improve with GS1 Standards and GS1-128 bar codes. The restaurant will be able to access everything about their inventory from their computer. Right now, employees have to literally open the walk-in door and look at the shelves. While we work on the back-end technology, we’re asking restaurants to keep an open mind. Grocery store cashiers are not trained on bar-code technology, yet they use them every day when they scan products. With more self-checkout options, consumers are scanning products every day, too. Once the standards and technology are in place, bar codes are brainless — yet valuable to our lives.

The main challenge with the GS1 Standards adoption process in foodservice is that we cannot just use the same UPC bar code and system we use for retail. In foodservice, we need to use the GS1-128 bar code to capture all product data needed for traceability. This means manufacturers have a little more work to do, but the payoff is huge and many are already seeing the benefits. It sounds like a cliché, but bar codes help us speak in a common language. The GS1-128 bar code will do the same for the restaurant industry.