Building a Transparent, Digital Food Supply Chain

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Produce barcodce
Consumers are demanding more information about their food products, and hope to get it from mobile devices and UPC barcodes.
© Thomas Dux via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons license.


Consumers are increasingly demanding more information on supply chains and food product information.
New technologies are allowing consumers to get more information from barcodes through mobile devices.

Andy Kennedy of FoodLogiQ will be a speaker at the July 19 FOOD FORWARD Summit. 


The good old UPC barcode has been around for nearly a half century, but savvy consumers are pushing hard for advancements in the way we track supply chains and deliver product information. The ubiquity of web-connected mobile devices with high-quality cameras enables mobile app developers to leverage the barcode in fresh ways. They can now provide consumers with digital food transparency, creating profound effects on the food industry. Whether they are trying to eat healthy, avoid allergens, support religious beliefs or other dietary convictions, consumers now want more information about food ingredients, nutrients, allergens, countries of origin, growing methods, production practices, company conduct, and recalls. Food businesses and technology providers who can efficiently and accurately digitize and share transparency information from their supply chain earn the informed consumer’s trust and loyalty. 

Digital transparency begins with the common GS1 UPC Barcode. This 12-digit number is linked by the manufacturer of a product to its brand, description, country of origin, price, weight, size, nutrients, allergens, production practices and thousands of other attributes and shared electronically. When scanned at retail, just a few of those attributes are displayed on the checkout monitor and printed on consumer receipts.

As part of the personalized nutrition movement, mobile application developers use this manufacturer supplied information to help consumers make better informed decisions about food purchases and consumption. An application called Shopwell uses a smartphone’s camera to scan the UPC and compare your selected dietary, allergen and belief preferences with the information collected and electronically shared by the manufacturer about that product.

Personally, I use MyFitnessPal to scan products to track caloric intake, macro and micro nutrients to lose weight and improve fitness. The database of 5 million+ products, I find, includes almost everything I consume. By rigorously tracking in real time what I eat I make smarter food decisions and lose or maintain weight.

The ease of using a mobile application to scan a UPC barcode provides consumers with the impression that the information provided is simple to collect.  However, nothing could be farther from the truth.  Today, most information is collected manually or in spreadsheets.  To improve the quality, availability and timeliness of information, the food industry, led by GS1—the originator of the UPC Barcode, is upgrading its systems globally to identify, capture and share information with trading partners and consumers beginning with three new barcodes. These barcodes attach serial, batch, and lot information to cases of food, but collecting this information can be costly and logistically challenging. Systems such as FoodLogiQ, however, offer easier collection and communication requirements. 

The benefits of having real-time product and batch/lot information are numerous and distributed across the supply chain from grower to restaurant or retail store.

Imagine scanning a barcode and discovering not only general information about the product, but specific information about:

  • Actual nutrient values and ingredients for a specific batch or lot;
  • Current food safety and sustainability certificates;
  • Geo-coordinates of harvest, processing and distribution;
  • Temperature history;
  •  Labor, health and safety records; 
  • Environmental management records;
  • Production efficiency statistics;
  • Agricultural inputs and on-farm practices;
  • Energy consumption;
  • Quality incidents and corrective actions.

This level of digital transparency will help food industry participants develop deeper relationships with consumers and enable long term, data-driven decision making for a more sustainable food industry.