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Barcodes in the Food Service Industry

Food and barcodes don’t mix. Or do they? While putting a barcode on individual slices of bread isn’t particularly practical, the foodservice industry relies on barcodes at every step of the supply chain.

Like other fields, foodservice requires rigorous tracking of inventory and distribution. A dynamic barcode system has multiple applications for today’s foodservice companies:

  • Tracking the distribution of food shipments as they move from warehouse to final destination
  • Recording expiration dates on individual shipments
  • Tracing contamination that originates off site
  • Reducing invoice discrepancies
  • Eliminating waste due to over-purchase of products

Developments in barcode technology permit on-demand printing with thermal transfer or thermal printers. Labels can even be printed right in the kitchen for product trays or opened packages. Meanwhile laser marking can be used to place a barcode directly on the skin of fruit and vegetables.

The foodservice industry has specific, voluntary guidelines for labeling. Some barcode systems are “closed loop,” meaning that they are for internal use only. Closed loop systems need not adhere to GS1 or UPC standards. On the other hand “open loop” barcode systems, that is, those that will be used externally, must meet GS1 and UPC guidelines. The Foodservice GS1 US Standards Initiative governs several aspects of barcodes used on food products:

  • Location identification: Each manufacturer, operator, and distributor must have a Global Location Number (GLN).
  • Product identification: The Global Trade Item Number® (GTIN®) on each foodservice product ensures unique identification.
  • Product attributes: Baseline product information assists operators, manufacturers, and distributors in exchanging comprehensive data easily and efficiently.
  • Global data synchronization: GS1 has built an open platform, the Global Data Synchronization Network®, so that companies can access and retrieve uniform data.

The GS1 Standards seek to rectify the lack of uniform standards across the foodservice industry. The disparities in weight measurement and the variability of product counts makes uniform coding a challenge. Furthermore local suppliers are often unaware of barcoding standards altogether. The lack of a system that bridged those gaps long proved an obstacle to uniform labeling.

Thus the GS1 US formed. This coalition consists of 55 domestic and international foodservice companies, including Tyson Foods, Inc, Nestlé Professional, and Darden Restaurants, that have committed to adopting common standards. Currently 45 members already comply, and the group hopes for 75% US compliance by 2015.

Adopting these guidelines across the industry will certainly streamline every step of the supply chain, from physical distribution of products to database management. Manufacturers, distributors, and operators can access accurate information from anywhere in the world, eliminating errors and reducing duplicated work. Ultimately barcodes offer a simple solution to the unique challenges of the foodservice industry.