Have You Been Keeping Track of GS1 Traceability Standards?

If not, these are the top three things to know right now.

A barcoded label at seedlings farmed by Legado Das Aguas
by Matt Kowalski
March 18, 2022

As a kid, I was frequently reminded that “sharing is caring,” usually when I was reluctant to give the video game controller to someone else. As I’ve grown older, though, there have been many times when this gentle reminder has proved valuable, the most recent being the volatility of economies and strained resources amid multiple crises.

Though competition remains across global industries, there is a movement toward greater cooperation as organizations race to regain control of their operations and restabilize supply chains so that healthcare, construction, mining, utility services, and governments can function properly. Supply chain issues aren’t just the concern of supply chain entities.

However, cooperation requires entities to talk to one another and, in this digital communications age, that means information systems must be able to talk to one another. That’s where standards, such as GS1 traceability standards, become vital to progress. 

Why Standards Matter to You, Me, and Society

Across every sector, companies, consumers, regulators, and others are demanding greater visibility and transparency. They know it’s the only way to make more informed decisions about what to buy, who to do business with, and how to refine their business operations to better serve their stakeholders, all of whom are increasingly concerned about product safety, sustainability, fair trade, and fair labor. As confirmed in Zebra’s recent Pharmaceutical Supply Chain Vision Study, people now want to know more about the products they purchase and consume – where they came from, whether production techniques were ethical, and if certain standards were upheld.

Yet, it’s impossible to get that information to the right people if it is siloed in closed systems. 

So, industry leaders have started looking for ways to create interoperability between their systems and allow information to openly flow to their teams and trading partners – Zebra included. As I mentioned before, if we can get systems to talk to one another, then it becomes easier for people to communicate, collaborate, and coordinate with one another. 

That’s where GS1 – and GS1 standards – come in.

Breaking Down Barriers

“GS1 standards provide industry with a common language so systems across supply chains can talk to each other,” explained Timothy Marsh, Senior Director, Traceability and Sustainability, GS1 in a recent conversation we had about the importance of standards to companies like Zebra, our partners, our customers, and even our competitors. 

GSI is a neutral, not-for-profit organization, and its sole purpose for existing is to help connect industries, organizations, and their systems in a trusted, cost-effective way so people can share information with anyone and everyone who needs it. 

“Information flow must represent physical flow for goods and services to move consistently and reliably,” Marsh added.

That’s why GS1 facilitates working groups that enable organizations and industries to collaboratively tear down technology siloes that exist across different ecosystems. Though some may see value in maintaining proprietary or closed ecosystems, many (like Zebra) are seeing greater value in connecting previously disparate systems – even if that means there’s a little coopetition required. 

In fact, some industry experts believe the reason supply chain issues are compounding right now is because the links aren’t connected end-to-end, technologically speaking. Each manufacturer, warehouse operator, distributor, shipper, and retailer must rely on the little bit of data available in its owned system to inform decisions and perform key actions that affect everyone else upstream and downstream. Though everyone tries to share insights, human-to-human communications are no match for system-to-system communications when it comes to coordinating operations of this scale and complexity. It’s physically impossible to trace the billions of goods in circulation right now using phone calls, emails, and spreadsheets alone. 

With the right traceability standards in place and universally leveraged, though, it becomes easy to exchange data in real time. 

Accessibility Drives Every Decision

According to Marsh, there are two core principles to the work they do at GS1:

  1. Provide industries with global standards for identification, data capture and data sharing that enable interoperability between different systems across any given value chain

  1. Ensure global standards are universally beneficial by working directly with industry on their creation and improvement through its Global Standards Management Process (GSMP)

The GS1 team follows through by…

  • providing a framework for the design of interoperable traceability systems and ensuring GS1 traceability standards use a common language. “It’s imperative that different traceability systems can talk to one another, regardless of their native language,” notes Marsh. “This is what makes it possible for organizations to access, combine and interpret data from a variety of sources across the end-to-end supply chain. It’s also what keeps all stakeholders on the same page as they work toward a mutually beneficial outcome which, in most cases, is the on-time delivery of authentic goods to end users.” 

For example, standards such as Global Location Number (GLN), Global Trade Item Number (GTIN), Electronic Product Code Information Services (EPCIS), along with globally standard data attributes, help provide end-to-end visibility of products as they move from the source to the consumer. Additionally, the GS1 DataMatrix and GS1 Digital Link standards connect myriad sources of data directly to the consumer, enabling full transparency to be achieved.

  • maintaining flexibility. Each trading partner can choose whichever GS1-enabled traceability solution best meets its specific needs, thereby “maximizing system interoperability,” Marsh confirms.

  • striving for cost effectiveness. GS1 standards are also exceptionally effective in connecting the smallest businesses in the world with the largest – and directly with consumers – thanks to their affordability. “Over the years, because of several industry-driven initiatives, we have been able to simplify access to and implementation of traceability standards for small and micro-businesses, such as raw material providers and farmers,” Marsh told me. I then learned that nearly 90% of the companies GS1 serves are small and medium businesses, many of them critical to upstream value chains. The information these businesses provide are also vital to confirming sustainability and building consumer trust in the quality and safety of ingredients. 

In fact, these are among the top reasons why GS1 standards have become game-changing for the food industry.

There is a great deal of scrutiny surrounding food production and food supply chain practices right now with recalls and non-compliance incidents on the rise in many regions of the world. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service (USDA FSIS) issued 363 recalls in 2020, and there were more than three times as many in Europe in that year according to the Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF). 

In addition, there are growing reports of fraud in the food industry, spurring mistrust among consumers and costing producers, suppliers and other supply chain stakeholders billions of dollars each year. 

The food industry needs a way to fight counterfeiting, manage certifications that can authenticate certain product claims, and protect its brand integrity. It also needs tools to implement and prove sustainable practices, boost logistics efficiency, comply with regulatory requirements and, if necessary, quickly perform recalls. Food industry attorney and founding member of Food Industry Counsel, LLC, Shawn Stevens, made that very clear in this eye-opening insight and call to action.

The good news is that those who have employed GS1 traceability standards have found it easy to build trust and confidence in the authenticity and, therefore, the safety of food supply chains. Dairy products can be uniquely identified by lots/farms and pallets. Agriculture products can be traced back to the farms and the specific plots from which the crops were harvested. And packaged products, along with restaurant meals, can be fully certified to meet certain dietary restrictions for those with food sensitivities. The source and characteristics of all ingredients can be individually verified by the food producers as well as consumers. In some cases, the consumers can see exactly where the seeds were planted, when the crops were transplanted (if applicable) and the path the produce traveled to get to their plates. Farm-to-fork transparency becomes second nature.

Of course, such transparency also benefits food producers, distributors and retailers who must make sourcing decisions based on availability. 

With the assistance of GS1 standards, GS1 has seen the creation of crop growth tracking calendars to inform harvesting and onward production schedules. And, using data extracted via barcode and radio frequency identification (RFID) solutions, GS1 traceability standards have been applied to improve stock management by every type of end-to-end food supply chain entity. 

“The systems these companies have created are highly intelligent and quite ingenious,” Marsh explained. “They are proof we don’t have to settle with the status quo as a society. Industry leaders have the means to improve supply chain operations, and not just exclusively in the food industry.” 

We’re Off to a Good Start, But It Takes Two to Tango (and Everyone to Effectively Trace Goods)

Over one million organizations in 150 countries are now using GS1 standards to facilitate universal data sharing. From my perspective, this demonstrates how much they care about the greater good, whether that’s defined and measured by the performance of supply chains or the utilities, energy producers, healthcare providers, construction companies, retailers, or governments that depend on those supply chains to keep their operations and society functioning. Zebra is proud to be one of these companies advocating for – and actioning – change. 

However, Marsh is quick to remind us that the work we’ve done so far is only valuable if it empowers us and every other entity in the world to make our valuable inventory-related information available to all stakeholders. So, he and others at GS1 recently issued a strong call to action of their own:

“There are three things we are asking you and all industry members to do to help us (i.e., society, not just GS1) achieve interoperable traceability on a truly global scale:

  1. Ensure all raw materials, finished goods, shipments, and assets are identified with globally unique identities (GTIN or sGTIN, GLN, SSCC, etc.) AND include the necessary batch/lot variable information such as Batch No., Expiry Date (and Serial Number if appropriate) on products that need to be traced.

  2. Utilize global standards for data carriers to carry identification and batch/lot variable information (i.e., Data Matrix, EPC RFID, GS1 128, etc.)

  3. Be willing to share data about your raw materials, work in progress (WIP), finished goods, shipments and product movements with trading partners using EDI and/or EPCIS as appropriate, so they can understand the best next move to make and fulfil their obligations as a link in your supply chain.

According to Marsh, “We recognize there are other ways to achieve interoperability with trading partners, but none are universally accessible or beneficial. Solutions built upon a proprietary layer of identity, data and data processes are ultimately less valuable to your organization, supply chain and stakeholders because they are unable to integrate with a broader ecosystem and scale effectively.”

“These siloed solutions also lock you and your partners into a relationship that limits choice across vendors and is costly to dismantle,” Marsh added. “Given how much you’ve probably had to diversify your supplier, shipper and even distributor networks these past two years, I’m sure you can appreciate the value of flexibility. If you can only share information with select trading partners, or only certain partners can share information with you via automated data systems, it’s going to be tough to forecast, plan, and execute operations. And when issues arise – and they will, as we know all too well – it’s going to be nearly impossible to see all your options. You will be restricted by the data you can extract from connected partners and wrangle via phone calls and emails from everyone else.”

They hit the nail on the head. As our supply chain leaders recently confirmed in a very honest interview about Zebra’s experiences the past two years, real-time data sharing makes all the difference when you’re trying to keep things on track and/or solve problems. In fact, Andre Luecht, Zebra’s Global Practice Lead for Manufacturing, Transportation and Logistics, said it best in a recent post entitled “Who (or What) Will Save the Supply Chain?”:

“Full supply chain visibility enables all participants to ‘keep the promise.’”

So, let’s assemble our working groups, identify disconnects in current industry communications – both literally and from a data perspective – and talk about the different ways we can use GS1 standards to bridge the divide in traceability information. Even competitors have a mutual interest in the success of supply chains. We all have a promise to keep to our customers, partners and other stakeholders. 

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To learn more about the GS1 standards available today or to join the standards development process, visit www.gs1.org.

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Editor’s Note:

Curious how others have leveraged GS1 traceability standards to improve communications, efficiency, quality, safety and accountability across their operations and supply chains? Check out these stories:

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Matt Kowalski
Matt Kowalski directs Business Operations for Zebra Technologies’ Chief Technology Office (CTO). His vast experience spans a wide array of disciplines and functions – product management, competitive intelligence, business and customer development, market research, operations, portfolio marketing, intellectual property, business strategy, product lifecycle management and voice of the customer.
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