16 ELECTRONIC IDENTIFICATION AND DIGITAL TRACEABILITY TECHNIQUES – Food and Drink – Good Manufacturing Practice, 7th Edition



The use of electronic identification and digital traceability techniques either within the manufacturing unit or across the wider supply chain is well established. This chapter seeks to give an overview of the types of electronic identification methods used and their value with regard to demonstrating control of food safety, legality, quality and integrity criteria.


16.1 The procedures employed by the manufacturer to ensure effective control of product identification and traceability, provenance and authenticity have been considered in Chapters 14 and 15. It is important for the manufacturer, when considering the use of electronic identification and digital traceability techniques, to first consider the attributes that they seek to monitor. These can be considered in terms of:

  • breadth: the number of attributes, or the quantity of information connected to each traceable resource unit (TRU) (see 14.5);
  • depth: how far upstream or downstream from the manufacturer the TRU needs to be monitored;
  • precision: the degree of accuracy in pinpointing a particular TRU’s location, movement or characteristics; and
  • access: the speed or timeliness with which tracking and tracing information needs to be communicated to the manufacturer.1

16.2 Whilst EU Regulation No. 178/2002 outlines the statutory requirement for traceability within the European Union (EU), and the need for one step forward and one step backward traceability (see 14.8), market requirements to be able to track and trace from field to fork and concern over maintaining integrity in supply chains means there is an increasing need for manufacturers to use technology to capture wider amounts of data and make sure it is accessible in the timescale required for routine monitoring, verification or in the event of a product withdrawal or recall. Technologies being used to develop appropriate data traceability systems are what are collectively described as automatic identification data capture (AIDC) systems. For a given TRU, AIDC systems link together data from the various electronic sources about the individual items into a cohesive history that can then be shared by supply chain partners. The result is that the speed of data flow can be increased, costs can be reduced and it supports greater data security in a global supply chain. As a result, through the use of information management systems and real‐time technology such as electronic data interchange (EDI) or extensible markup language (XML), data‐based traceability systems can be developed by the food manufacturer. There are different levels of TRU, e.g. trade unit, logistics unit and lot (see 14.5), and supply chain partners may use different technology to collect data at each level that when combined forms an overarching traceability system that links through individual product packs to the logistic unit at box or pallet level through to the overall physical lot, i.e. the definable batch of product. This is important to consider as the traceability process has to work through the entire logistics and distribution chain to when a product is purchased on the shelf in a retail environment. Data can also be captured with regard to expiry dates within the AIDC system so this has a value not only with stock control, but also as technology develops in the home setting too.

Data can be exchanged between businesses using EDI, enabling multiple electronic messages such as logistics information to transfer between the originator and the recipient. Data is captured via 1D (series of parallel bars) stacked 1D (multiple bar codes above each other), and 2D (such as quick response (QR) bar codes via scanning of labels on trays, cases and pallets. QR codes contain a variety of information, including batch numbers, duration dates and weights or volumes and are of benefit in addressing the risk of counterfeiting of raw materials and finished products. Optical character recognition (OCR), and radio frequency identification (RFID) tags are also of value when developing electronic identification and digital traceability systems.

16.3 RFID tags require two physical elements in order to operate effectively: a receiver (sometimes called reader or interrogator) and a transponder (sometimes simply called a label or tag). The use of RFID tags means that the product can be identified and tracked using radio waves. RFID is of value during manufacturing processes to identify continuous TRU as well as discrete batches. There are challenges to using RFID in a manufacturing environment where it might be hot, cold, wet and this can lead to physical limitations with its use. The nature of the food item in terms of composition, moisture content, shape and size will also influence the effectiveness of the RFID system, for example foods with a lower water activity will have less influence on the operational viability of the tag. Food packaging materials such as glass and metal can also have a negative effect so the manufacturer must ensure that they consider this during the traceability system development process. It may be necessary, for example, for the product to be placed in secondary packaging to which the RFID tag can then be attached. Thus tags can be applied to a container, tray or pallet rather than individual products.

16.4 Other challenges with developing AIDC systems are the lack of uniformity with different equipment and format standards, and this can limit how information is shared. The level of granularity of the system is important. Granularity describes the depth and detail of the information required. A low granularity system works at the summary level whilst a high granularity system works at the individual transaction, i.e. at a minute level. The level of granularity therefore will determine whether the traceability system is operating at item, case or pallet or container level. The volume of data being managed, cost, the skillset required to operate the system and the need for stationary or mobile sensors and readers all influence how the system is ultimately designed and implemented in the manufacturing environment. Global positioning systems (GPS) together with RFID tags and sensors can be used to control the chill chain and on‐farm electronic identification (EID) of animals via tags is an example of the use of low‐frequency RFID. Therefore the manufacturer needs to consider how the AIDC system elements are used internally within the manufacturing unit and their compatibility with those system elements used externally across the whole chain from farm through to retail or food service.

16.5 Electronic technologies, including geographic information systems (GIS) and remote sensing (RS), Bluetooth, WiFi, WiMax, WiBro, Zigbee, Ultra‐Wide Band and web services, mean that data management systems, frameworks and/or architectures can be implemented across the supply chain.

16.6 The use of electronic traceability and identification techniques aids a number of the procedures and protocols outlined as being key elements of an effective good manufacturing practice system. Examples include barcodes being used in inventory control, stock allocation, stock and batch movements, theft protection and anti‐counterfeiting, commercial traceability software used for tracking and tracing products and food safety and quality assurance information through stages of the manufacturing process and the wider supply chain, EID, which supports batch traceability and management, and RFID, which is used for information sharing, temperature‐time control, livestock management, theft‐prevention, electronic payment, automated production systems, navigation management, inventory management and promotions management.

16.7 Electronic sensors can be combined with electronic traceability and digital identification techniques to give further information about product and process characteristics. Examples of these sensors include biosensors that can identify analytes, microorganisms and proteins in food, chemical sensors that can monitor food quality and packaging integrity, nose systems that provide information on ripening, fermentation or spoilage, and traditional sensors that can monitor temperature, humidity and so on.

16.8 Blockchain is another technological solution cited as being of value in tracking and tracing food products, especially in the event of a product recall. The advantage of such technology is the speed of data capture and analysis, the development of data platforms and the accessibility of the data to multiple stakeholders in the event of a food safety, quality or food integrity challenge. However, this advantage rests on the effective use of such systems by people across the whole food chain, not just in manufacturing. These individuals require the designate skills, literacy and training to use the technology. The efficacy of data input is the limiting factor throughout what are often global chains, especially where some production stages have limited technological access and conditions can be adverse, e.g. scanning of livestock ear tags in fields in what can be poor weather conditions. However, the technology is developing fast and such challenges will potentially be overcome in the short to medium term.