Recalling the Right Products

The latest product recall in the United States, for pet food, reveals the complexity of modern supply chains and the track-and-trace challenges companies face.
Published: March 21, 2007

Back in its heyday, Ford Motor Co. controlled much of its own supply chain. The company even owned plantations that provided rubber for its tires. Today, few companies are vertically integrated to such a degree. As a result, supply chains are far more complex, and companies are far more reliant on partnerships to produce goods than they once were.

This fact—and its implications for radio frequency identification technology—was brought home to me when Menu Foods of Streetsville, Ontario, announced it was recalling 60 million cans and pouches of pet food because a tainted batch had led to the deaths of some 10 dogs and cats. What struck me was not the size of the recall—60 million units—but rather, the fact that so many brands were involved in the recall. Menu Foods manufactures products for such brand names as Eukanuba, Iams and Nutro Natural Choice, as well as store brands, including Hannaford, Price Chopper, Wal-Mart and Winn-Dixie.

If you make your own goods and ship them from your own factories in Asia to your own warehouses on five continents to your own stores around the world, a recall is completely within your control. But what if you get components or ingredients from a wide variety of suppliers and put them into numerous products that are sold through a diversity of distribution or retail partners? How do you effectively track and trace? How do you quickly identify the right products to recall?

Today, the answer is: You don’t. You recall everything to make sure you retrieve all the bad product, even though it’s wasteful and hurts profitability. But someday, business people (who are, perhaps, in high school today) will take it for granted that you can do a search and find the precise location of all product that was part of a particular production batch through the EPCglobal Network. Using RFID to share information with supply-chain partners securely is no small feat. Few will understand all the work that went into creating standards for sharing data and network standards that allow the flow of information to happen in the blink of an eye.

It drives me bonkers when people say RFID hasn’t lived up to its promise. It’s a bit like saying the airplane hadn’t revolutionized the supply chain five years after Orville and Wilbur Wright took off from Kitty Hawk. Transforming the supply chain—making it possible for companies to know exactly what ingredients or components went into which products, were sold to which customers and ended up in which stores—will take many years, not because Wal-Mart is slowing down but because it is so difficult and involves the development of complex infrastructure, hardware and software standards and new business processes.

In the meantime, RFID is delivering benefits in many areas to many companies. Our cover story in the next issue of the magazine will show how EPC technology is helping Kimberly-Clark make sure its promotional displays are in stores when it’s advertising the promotion. At RFID Journal LIVE! 2007, being held April 30 to May 2 in Orlando, dozens of companies will explain the real-world benefits they are getting from active RFID, real-time locating systems, RFID temperature sensors, and passive high-frequency and passive ultrahigh frequency tags.

Companies that read articles claiming RFID isn’t delivering on the promise should read and listen to these case studies and see what they could be achieving today with RFID. And they should look at the complexity of their supply chains and think about what the benefits will be tomorrow.