Breaking News: There’s Now a Better Way to Track and Trace Food (Thanks to GS1)

The new GS1 Tag Data Standard (TDS 2.0) makes it easier than ever to automate data collection throughout the supply chain using a combination of barcode and RFID technology.

A forklift operator touches the screen of a Zebra VC8300 while transporting produce totes
by Matt Kowalski
September 29, 2022

For several years, there has been growing interest in the use of case/carton-level RAIN RFID technology in the food industry, which doesn’t surprise me. If you’re a food manufacturer, distributor, retailer, or restaurant operator, I’m sure you could write a book (or 10) about how difficult it’s becoming to meet regulatory compliance requirements, win customers’ trust, ensure food safety, enable targeted recalls, conduct accurate stock rotations, monitor product freshness, prevent waste, increase operational efficiencies, and otherwise just keep the ship upright and heading in the right direction. You need to find a better way – an easier way – to do everything. While there’s no single solution available, there is a single technology platform that can be used to solve nearly every one of these growing problems: RAIN RFID.

Of course, applying new technologies or techniques always feels risky in the food industry, mainly because there is so much at stake. I know you aren’t going to make a long-term investment without proof of concept or answers for every “what if?” question posed by your boss, colleagues, partners and customers. That’s why I want to ensure you’re aware of what global standards bodies such as GS1 have been doing to give you the data – the “proof” – you need to feel comfortable adopting recommended RFID solutions.

RFID Has the Right Ingredients for the Food Industry

The EPC-encoded RAIN RFID technology used in the apparel industry leverages an encoding scheme that includes product identification and serial number. But not all supply chain and retail RFID applications are comparable. The industries that handle perishable goods need data with extended attributes, such as the batch/lot and date, to successfully manage, track and trace items.  

As food supply chain partners explore the possibility of including such attributes in an RFID tag, a new horizon opens for the future of supply chain visibility, improved inventory management and traceability.  Eliminating the need for line-of-sight data capture via barcodes opens the possibility of automatically capturing this data from a production plant all the way to a restaurant or retail store. This RFID-retrieved data, when properly aggregated, ultimately provides end-to-end supply chain visibility with very little effort, if any at all, by front-line workers. The readers can capture data from thousands of tags each second without needing anyone to aim a barcode scanner in the direction of the tagged item. This creates the opportunity for companies to know exactly which batch/lot was sent to each specific distribution center, restaurant or store location. Such precise product visibility across the supply chain enables improved supply and demand planning, forecasting, and other critical efforts to ensure customers get the right product at the right time and place. It also enables accurate, precise, and faster recalls and management of time- and temperature-sensitive goods. First-in, first-out rotations are simple when you can quickly confirm that they’re staged and stored accordingly.  

Of course, these benefits will not be fully realized until the food industry invests in widespread implementation. 

Fortunately, GS1 just released an updated Tag Data Standard, TDS 2.0, which includes the capability of encoding these data elements in the RFID tag EPC memory. This helps with the above efforts and streamlines integration, as trading partners are able to augment manual barcode data collection processes with automated reads of RFID tags containing the same attribute data. This enables more data collection through automation, significantly enhancing supply chain visibility.  

The benefits of TDS 2.0 include, but are not limited to, the following: 

  • Extensible RFID tag memory in a manner resembling data-rich barcodes. TDS 2.0 defines a new “SGTIN+” Identification Key that, for example, can include the data encoded in a corresponding GS1-128 barcode such as batch/lot, date, net weight, etc. – provided there is sufficient available chip memory.

  • The fast search of tag population for criteria, such as expiry or batch/lot, without requiring network connectivity or trade partner integration. This drives business benefits such as optimized picking for freshness rotation and expedited recovery.

  • Simpler EPC encoding. For example, instead of breaking the GTIN into constituent parts, the full GTIN is encoded with TDS 2.0. This better aligns with corresponding barcode formats and removes the need for a GS1 Company Prefix length lookup when encoding.

  • Backward compatibility with prior tag data standards. None of the prior GS1 Identification Keys are deprecated.

GS1 US, Avery Dennison, and Golden State Foods executed a proof of concept during the Spring of 2022 using Zebra RFID technology at the Golden State Foods manufacturing facility in Opelika, Alabama. They were able to prove the ability to encode and decode extended RFID tag data attributes using the TDS 2.0 encoding scheme. They demonstrated RAIN RFID’s ability to quickly find tags meeting specific criteria in offline conditions inside a warehouse – highlighting the technology’s value to seamlessly enable multiple business processes with fast, accurate, non-line-of-sight data capture. 

Of course, the TDS 2.0 standard is not only for the food industry and, to be clear, this technology is a supplement and not a replacement of data-rich barcodes such as the GS1-128 or GS1 DataMatrix.

However, as Jonathan Gregory, Director, Community Engagement, GS1 US, reminded me, “TDS 2.0 empowers the food industry to adopt RFID technology in new and powerful ways. This standard is the starting point for long-term innovation, and the crux of innovations with longevity, especially in track and trace applications.”

What Now?

Companies like Golden State Foods and Chipotle have already started to drive forward progress with RFID track and trace solutions, which they’ve shared publicly. And Zebra has been working with many food industry leaders behind the scenes to test – and prove – the viability of various RFID solutions in manufacturing, distribution, warehousing, retail and food service environments. My colleagues Amanda Wade, John Wirthlin and Reuben George spoke about those projects in this recent podcast:

Industrial Automation Insider: The Food and Beverage Industry is Cooking Up Some Interesting Solutions to Current Supply Chain Problems

If you’re curious about how they’re leveraging RFID, or how you may be able to leverage RFID data to supplement your barcode systems and improve inventory track and trace or management, reach out to your local Zebra representative or one of the experts I just mentioned. 

I encourage you to also keep an eye on what companies in other industries are doing now that TDS 2.0 has been released. The apparel and general merchandise industry may leverage it to encode sourcing details such as country of origin for customs management, and there are ongoing discussions in GS1 Healthcare US active workgroups about new RFID solutions using TDS 2.0. Just like in the food industry, data attributes such as GTIN, expiration date, and batch/lot are necessary to help protect human safety and create operational efficiencies. So, I suspect we’ll be talking about some of the parallels we see unfolding in more depth in the coming months.

Until then, I encourage you to check out resources below and talk to those who have been on the front line of RFID technology development, refinement, testing and implementation. They’ll be able to help you develop an RFID solution that meets your needs, even if you specialize in cold chain goods that have not been considered candidates for RFID track and trace solutions in the past. Technology has come a long way in the last few years…

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Matt Kowalski
Throughout his diverse career, Matt Kowalski has launched a number of advanced technology devices around the world, managed multi-million-dollar technology product lines, led global marketing teams and advertising agencies and managed market research and competitive intelligence for technology and consumer product goods (CPG) organizations.
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