It seems that a lot of people enjoyed my post last week about general bar coding standards for the food industry. As a matter of fact, these standards are already widely implemented within some segments of the food industry. When I visit today a warehouse containing boxed meats from different vendors, I find that probably 80% of the inventory in there is already labeled according to these standards. Even with Fruits and Vegetables we see more and more adaption of the PTI standards, even though adaptation efforts have slowed down a bit, since the majority of FDA regulated food manufacturers is waiting for the final rulings and recommendations for traceability based on the food safety modernization act. FDA regulated food manufacturers are well served on monitoring and subscribing to the information on the progress on FDA’s website for the topic.
USDA regulated foods have already much more sophisticated labeling systems in place, so while most other food industry sub sectors are working on understanding the basics and learning how to adapt these food industry standards for their individual applications, USDA regulated foods, especially meat companies where more looking at how to actually label within a production environment. This is harder than it sounds. Printing a label is not really the issue and applying it on a piece of corrugated box or combo not either. But printing a label and apply it directly to carcasses on the kill-floor or production containers whether these are “Vemag wagons”, smokehouse racks or plastic bins can be challenging. Even if you get them initially on, you may have issues them falling off in the process when you don’t want to, or getting them off when you want to.
Of course you can look at alternate identification technologies, especially for meat harvesting operations, but these solutions have disadvantages as well. Whether you are planning on putting RF-ID’s into your trolleys or drill holes into them, the biggest disadvantage of most alternate identification technologies is, that they do not provide any human readable information. The future may hold other solutions, as we can see the emergence of inkjet printers that can print directly on the surface of a carcass and video recognition software that can read these letter and numbers. These solutions are today bleeding age, with the emphasis on bleeding. Another big disadvantage of these solutions is, that they require significant capital investment for a fairly small application. This makes most of these solutions cost prohibitive, especially for smaller meat packers and processors.
There is an overlooked solution for a lot of smaller to midsize companies within food, “Loop Labels” where I had somehow trouble finding appropriate vendors in North America. These labels are common in Europe to mark luggage or mark plants in gardening stores. These labels can be made of a plastic compound, that does not tear and can be printed with thermo-transfer label printers. The costs of these loop labels in Europe are in the neighborhood of $60 USD per thousand. This makes the label supply approximately three times more expensive than paper labels, but with $.06 per piece still a practical solution for most companies that want to automatically mark production within the process. These labels can be looped around pretty much anything, whether these are handles of cards and bins, smokehouse sticks or even tendons of hanging hogs. You may even carve a little pocket into the meat and loop them through there. These labels withstand heat, humidity, physical abuse even dirt, which you can easily wipe off. They come also in different shapes, width and supply forms to accommodate any printing need.
The only real downside these labels have is the costs of actually applying them. A trained person can probably apply such a loop label within 10 sec. This is reasonable to do in a lot of instances, especially if volumes are not too high.
It sometimes just takes a look at complete other industries to find solutions for a problem. I know from other solutions, where companies used sugar labels used in tiling swimming pools for labeling, because they can be simply hosed of a container. There are always solutions to affixing markings and identification within the material flow of production facilities except when product is being pumped in enclosed systems. You just need to be creative and you will find the identification technologies for your process.