When recalls like the recent romaine lettuce incident ­occur, consumers’ fear of “big food” is exacerbated. But the harsh reality is that, despite the best of intentions and most diligent good manufacturing practices, things can — and sometimes will — go wrong. For manufacturers of baked foods and snacks, labeling, barcoding and data management technology will not only mitigate the risk of recall, but in the face of one, these advances can also save a company time, money or even its image.

Although the consumer is the primary concern, labeling and barcoding — and the technology that comes with them — benefit more than just the end user. They can also improve traceability for the whole process, and that starts at the very beginning.

As food production facilities increase their overall automation, labeling technology aids in that effort. While less automated bakeries rely on people for quality control, especially in the packaging department, automation provides an element of safety that can lessen the risk for error.

The use of data management such as Focus Works’ PRIMS system not only aids in Food Safety Modernization Act compliance, but it also streamlines the recall process internally with significantly lower risk for error than a paper documentation system.

“A comprehensive system like this can allow full lot traceability control from when the ingredients are received and inventory handled through controlling all manual and automatic ingredient scaling and additions,” said Bob White, president, Focus Works. “It also aids with operator instructions, including the computerized record of each step in the process, until the product is shipped from the plant.”

Ultimately, Mr. Burgh noted, food safety and quality control go hand in hand. And in looking at labeling, barcoding and traceability in the overall process, it’s not always about the size of the bakery but rather the complexity of the operation.

“If you look at a very large bakery that only makes a few things versus the same size bakery that has changeovers every three or four hours on each line, the one with more changeovers is going to have potentially more risk,” he said.

Mr. Burgh explained that changeovers are points where human error can occur, leading to the risk of a mislabeled product heading out the door.

“It doesn’t necessarily need to be going from an allergen to a non-allergen,” he said. “It can be changing over from a lighter to darker product; the first few of a next product could end up with streaks in it and cause consumer complaints.”

It’s also important to consider the type of product when looking at traceability efforts, Mr. White said. For example, pan bread production can be far less complex than gourmet desserts or cakes that involve sub-recipes and manual work.

“Whatever the case, at a minimum, a plant needs to label incoming materials with bar codes for easier inventory control,” Mr. White advised. “In more complex plants, they benefit from accurate accountability, inventory usage and cost management.”

For those gourmet desserts and cakes, Focus Works offers a specific version of the PRIMS system, called PRIMS Dessert.

Tracking and traceability can help perfect the process from the time ingredients enter the plant until the product is on the shelf … and back again.

“Being able to trace a finished product back to which line, shift or even operator will get back to that root cause,” Mr. Burgh noted.

Despite the fact that the label or closure is at the final stages of production, it carries great responsibility.

“It’s such a small piece of the overall line, but it’s a critical piece,” Mr. Cardey explained. “You can make the greatest bread in the world on the first 100 feet of the line, but if it’s not packaged and closed properly with the right amount of coding and traceability information, what have you really got?”

Between the label and the barcode lie a lot of data. But without purpose or function, data is of little use. Turning it into information truly prepares a baker for a recall should one occur.

It’s important to avoid collecting data for data’s sake, Mr. Burgh said. Traceability’s real value rests in the good it does, so bakers must be sure to choose the right tools for the job. Nexcor offers technology such as radio frequency identification, which uses a printed label and antenna technology as opposed to a barcode that can be scanned.

“As a box or tray goes through a doorway, an antenna will read a label — or a whole palette of them — without any human intervention,” Mr. Burgh said. “That way, you don’t have to worry about the barcode being damaged.”

As with most technology in the digital age, data collection — and the ability to use it for recall management — has made huge headway in just a few years.

“There have been a lot of improvements in the technology of barcode printers and scanners,” Mr. White said, recalling the difficulties that came with poorly printed labels or inaccurate barcodes from 5 or 10 years back. “Barcode scanner technology has made significant strides. We now use scanners that use imaging to view and piece together a damaged label so you can still read it.”

Burford Corp. also stays on top of the latest printing technology to ensure the best quality printing on its tape closures. While the company can work with any number of different printers, Markem printers are the standard.

“Our tape closure’s system has a printer that is capable of using barcodes or other types of traceable print,” Mr. Lindsey said. “As Markem technology changes, we incorporate those changes into our system.”

Every improvement in labeling and traceability is a step toward managing recalls efficiently and ensuring that commercially produced baked foods and snacks are the safest they can be.

This article is an excerpt from the February 2019 issue of Baking & Snack. To read the entire feature on labeling and barcoding, click here.