Meat and poultry companies used to be able to claim that their differences from other food sectors limited their ability to adopt technology or participate in industry standards. That is no longer the case; the industry is leveraging technology to handle issues such as traceability and recalls. In fact, the Meat & Poultry Data Standards (mpXML) guide is recognized as one of the most comprehensive traceability initiatives in the food industry.[1] Most recently, mpXML’s members—composed of GS1 US, National Chicken Council, American Meat Institute, National Turkey Federation, American Lamb Association, Pork Checkoff, Beef Cattlemen of America and industry leaders including Walmart, Costco, Safeway, Farmland Foods, Wegmans Food Markets, Smithfield Foods, Supervalu and Tyson Foods—published the document A Model for the Adoption of Critical Tracking Events (CTEs) in the Meat & Poultry Supply Chain in May 2013. The concept of CTEs was introduced in 2009 by the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT), adopted by the industry soon after and refined continuously since.

Other milestones mark the ongoing evolution of traceability in the meat and poultry industry. When the first Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) pilot projects were rolled out in 2012, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and IFT began by testing traceability in peanut butter and tomatoes, but the tests were quickly expanded to include kung pao-style chicken. In 2013, a new recall standard from GS1 specifically for meat was incorporated into product recall programs in the U.S. and Canada.

The industry is trying to absorb and react to all of this government tightening of the food safety compliance reins, such as FDA’s new powers: For the first time, the federal watchdog can clamp down on food companies with mandatory recalls, a consequence of FSMA. Not to mention the growing demand by food suppliers’ customers for improved traceability and recalls, proven through certification to Global Food Safety Initiative-recognized schemes.

One-Up, One-Down Traceability…If Only It Were That Straightforward
Whether your product is delivered to retailers, wholesalers and/or distributors, foodservice or direct to consumers, whether your raw materials come from single or multiple sources, domestic and/or imported, the increasingly complex food supply chain means many moving pieces for any company to juggle to achieve the quickest, most accurate lot tracking and recalls. That juggling is even trickier for the meat and poultry industry—given the number of processing steps (catchweight, fixed weight, case-ready, tray-ready, store-processed, etc.), unique packaging and tracking issues, and variance in raw materials. The meat and poultry supply chain includes packers, suppliers, distributors, retail grocers and foodservice operators.

Obviously, not every link in the food supply chain is equal in its requirement for data capture, recording and retrieval of data. Core transactional business processes—sometimes referred to as CTEs—include receipt of bulk raw meat, ingredients and packaging; product creation; packaging/pallet configuration; and picking and shipping.

As noted by mpXML, “The intention is to deliver a model for industry practices that uses CTE methodology… [so] supply chain companies can be better equipped to assess the level of investment necessary to revise operating procedures and technology systems.” Those technology systems include enterprise resource planning (ERP) software; however, not every ERP on the market includes meat and poultry industry-specific functionality. To reduce the cost, risk and time involved in implementation, look for best-in-breed software that can effectively handle the requirements discussed in this article.

A strong database and fully integrated software are required to handle CTEs—any occurrence involving an item within the supply chain, at a specific location and time, associated with the collection and storage of data useful for associating the item or related items to that occurrence, and determined to be necessary for identifying the actual path of an item through the supply chain. Examples of CTEs for the meat and poultry industry include:

•    Transformation Input 1: Raw material(s) used to produce a traceable product that enters the supply chain; unless for immediate consumption, it falls into the category of “consumption event.”

•    Transformation Input 2: Traceable product is packaged and labeled for entry into the supply chain. (The transformation input events must share a common data element, such as a production order, so related input products are associated with all corresponding output products.)

•    Transportation – Shipping: The traceable product is dispatched from one defined location to

•    Transportation – Receiving: The traceable product is received at one defined location from another.

•    Deletion – Consumption: The traceable product is removed from the supply chain where it becomes available to consumers.

•    Deletion – Disposal: The traceable product is destroyed or discarded so it can no longer be used as a food ingredient or become available to consumers.

Catchweight Management
With meat processing and packaging, products come in all different sizes and weights, resulting in a wide variance in prices and packaging. Just a sampling of the kind of meat and poultry products delivered to the retailer, wholesaler or distributor includes fixed-weight, case-ready (packaging and label placement by supplier); catchweight, case-ready (prepriced or unpriced); tray-ready (processed, bulk-packed into catchweight bags); and store-processed (wholesale cuts of meat that are vacuum-packed).

Because of this variety, catchweight management is of critical concern in traceability at meat and poultry companies. Having differently sized meat products—both as inputs and outputs—adds a layer of complexity to traceability. The way to simplify catchweight management is through the use of barcode scanning wherever varying-weight products are touched—be that final product shipping to customers, consumption of raw meat or tracking meat byproducts that are used in other food processes, internally at your operations or sold to other companies.

Catchweight management is not a functionality inherent in every business software system, as Roger Wood Foods—a meat processor in Savannah, GA—can attest. “Although some vendors claimed to be able to handle catchweights, they were small companies that I had never heard of, and we wanted to know our ERP partner is going to be around for the long run,” says Adger Ross, director of IT, Roger Wood Foods. “There is a solid foundation for the catchweight functionality, with stability and scalability,” says Ross, whose company supplies more than 400,000 pounds a week of smoked sausage and other smoked meat for national and regional grocery chains and foodservice across the Southern states. Roger Wood is seeing the following benefits from the catchweight functionality in its software:

•    On a case-by-case level, visibility of the actual catchweight of each product directly in your item ledger and warehouse entry transactions.

•    Weights can be recorded at time of purchase or recording can be offloaded until you ship the product. Catchweight is visible on the item-tracking page wherever item tracking is available in the system (e.g., all inventory transactions).

•    Do sales pricing by catchweight, meaning that even though you sell the item by the case, the price that is used could be a per-pound price that changes as the weight of each case changes.

•    When receiving catchweight items into inventory, the cost that hits the inventory is based on the actual catchweight of the case. This is true for purchased products as well as manufactured products.

•    If distributing landed costs to catchweight items, you can do it by the actual catchweight to get a more accurate cost distribution.

When you go to ship product to your customer, you need to be able to identify accurately which cases were sent—since you are being paid by weight. Some ERP systems can support the complexity of managing catchweights using serial tracking in a couple of scenarios:

1.    Capturing case weights as product enters into inventory (whether at receiving or production) and tracking each specific case’s movement through the warehouse, picking and shipping

2.    Capturing total weight as product enters into inventory and only recording specific case weights at times of shipping

Byproduct Processes
One of the good aspects of the meat and poultry business—that all parts of the animals are used—can also be a hassle: How to keep track of where all those parts go? Into which food processing systems? Coming out as what kind of products? Upon arrival at a processing facility, fat and other parts of meat products are trimmed to be repurposed as byproducts—and it is your company’s responsibility to ensure that these byproducts are tracked as they make their way through various systems and stages of food preparation. It is equally important to ensure that the market cost allocation of these byproducts is handled accurately and efficiently along the way. Some ERP systems will include management of recipes based on deconstruction, offering byproduct and coproduct support. Recipe management, or batch processing, functionality, in addition to bill of materials and other features, includes the ability to support static and dynamic unit-of-measurement conversions, including catchweight.

More meat and poultry companies are moving toward the inclusion of machine-readable labels (barcodes) such as the GS1-compliant label used by the U.S. meat industry. GS1 US has recommended the installation of point-of-sale hardware and software systems at retailers, including those selling fresh foods in meat, poultry and fish categories, in order to scan and process GS1 barcodes and 14-digit Global Trade Item Numbers®. Barcode scans can capture all traceable information and store it within the ERP or warehouse management system (WMS). Catchweight management, for example, is simplified by the use of barcode scanning wherever varying-weight products are touched—whether final product shipping to customers or consumption of raw meat and tracking byproducts, either internally or by other processors.

It should be noted that some ERP systems limit the storage to only one barcode per item, making conversion to new barcode labels a major disruption to your business. Be sure to look for an ERP system that lets you store as many barcodes as you like, in a variety of formats, so your company can take a phased-in approach to barcode conversion if necessary.

Case-Level Traceability
At a bare minimum, a supplier must assign a batch/lot number for case-level traceability. A serial number is sometimes included in addition to the batch/lot number as a more refined product identifier within the batch/lot. This is especially true for catchweight cases (where barcodes have limited data-carrying capacity, as noted). Ideally both a batch/lot number and a serial number are included on the label of a case. A serial number will indicate what is in each case of meat, and all the cases are loaded onto a pallet that gets its own dedicated serial number.

Meat and poultry suppliers need to be able to establish a case-level product protocol that can be used for traceability by supplier, retailer, wholesaler and distributor both in normal conditions and in the event of a recall. A case is a discrete unit with its own unique serial number and unique weight. All levels of the product hierarchy must be traceable and tie back to the case level—for example, from the shipment to the pallet to the case to the individual item.

Any ERP system you select should include the ability for single-scan inventory management, also known as containerization. Roger Wood Foods’ Adger Ross notes that “a huge factor for us in selection of ERP software was the containerization functionality that allows for picking of a container full of cases without having to scan individual cases.” This matters in particular with catchweights, since every case (50 or 60 cases in a container) will be of a different weight; the single scan of the container’s license plate solves this. Best practices for maintaining traceability include the capture of all traceable information and storage of information within your business systems—such as ERP and WMS—by scanning the information directly from the case. The risk of human error is reduced, and the data capture timeline is dramatically shortened, compared with having employees manually keying data into the system.

U.S. meat and poultry suppliers are currently dealing with a less-than-perfect world when it comes to electronic scanning in their industry. Hurdles they face that can be addressed with software technology—such as a fully integrated ERP system built with industry-specific functionality—include:

•    A lack of electronic capture of CTE data available for fixed-weight case or item product using certain types of barcodes.

•    Costs involved in implementing real-time labeling solutions.

•    Labor costs to change business processes to capture data during receiving and shipping.

Mobile warehouse management within an ERP system allows for hand-held barcode scanning where data from bin-level inventory transactions are integrated into the ERP system through radiofrequency and mobile devices connected wirelessly to the network. This kind of on-the-spot access to information means that traceability requirements are met with increased speed and accuracy of inventory controls (e.g., first-in/first-out picking, better visibility of warehouse locations) to manage perishable stock and expiration dates. Additionally, in the event of a recall, the company can quickly locate potentially contaminated products. Real-time barcode labeling on the shop floor or warehouse floor is possible with extended ERP functionality.

C.O.O.L. Rule Status
The World Trade Organization (WTO) recently rejected U.S. country-of-origin-labeling (C.O.O.L.) rules requiring labels on meat that identify where the animals were born, raised and slaughtered. WTO sided with Canada and Mexico, saying that C.O.O.L. has caused less favorable treatment to imported livestock from those countries compared to U.S. livestock and has caused a detrimental impact on competitive trade opportunities of imported livestock.

Voluntary C.O.O.L. might still be a possibility to consider, as it would allow packers and retailers the option to label the meat’s origin. Consumers could continue to shop for foods by origin preference, if the packers and retailers decided that the added cost of labeling would be offset by consumer demand.

Electronic Data Interchange (EDI)
EDI is commonly used by partners in a food supply chain to share business information; EDI is neutral in terms of technology platform. You do want to use a business software system that includes the interface with EDI if your customers require (now or in the near future) that you handle sales and data transfer that way. According to mpXML’s May 2013 guide to CTEs, “The ASC X12 EDI 105 Business Entity Filings transaction set may be used to carry the key data elements of each critical tracking event. This EDI message could be adopted as one acceptable means of reporting CTE data to health authorities or sharing CTE data with trusted trading partners.”

Once you decide to automate your operations, take your time to investigate which software systems are built with industry-specific functionality that can be mapped onto your business processes to resolve many of the issues around catchweights, multi-stage processing, scanning, labeling and other considerations for traceability. Pay particular attention to the automation of data capture, storage and retrieval for CTEs such as receipt of bulk raw meat, ingredients and packaging, product creation, packaging/pallet configuration, picking and shipping.

Just as it is true that when it comes to effective supply chains, you are only as good as your partners, it’s also true that you are only as good as your technology when it comes to having the most efficient, quickest and most compliant processes in place. A fully integrated ERP system, built with industry-specific functionality mapped to a meat or poultry company’s unique business processes, resolves many issues around traceability, in a day and age when nothing short of best practices will do. 

Heather Angus-Lee is a longtime business and trade journalist.