Lot and batch number tracking in your food distribution warehouse

Tracking batch or lot numbers within the food industry is fundamental for many manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers. Capturing and tracking those product attributes can be time consuming, manual and open for error without the correct controls in place. The term batch number and lot number are used interchangeably throughout this article.

Tracking specific products through the supply chain was thrown into the spotlight in 2013 with the horse meat scandal where it was found major supermarkets were seemingly unaware of the contents of products on their shelves. Although horse meat itself poses no immediate threat to health, consumers took note and started to ask – where does my food come from?

Why track batch and lot numbers?

A batch number or lot number is a mark of identification, usually generated by the manufacturer, which allows a small sample of product to be uniquely identified.

Being able to effectively track lot numbers is now a key requirement of many retailers

A batch number may relate to the date of production, the source of raw materials or the machines used to process the food. The batch number may also link to a job number or production plan which is typically controlled by an MRP (material requirements planning) system.

Being able to effectively track lot numbers is now a key requirement of many retailers when supplying product for human consumption.

Many larger retailers will want to audit your facilities to ensure your operations meet their compliance standards so there is a good chance you’ll need to prove your capabilities around:

  • How batches are recorded
  • How batches are generated
  • What information the unique batch number relates to
  • How much information can be provided around the life of a batch
  • What process is in place if a batch needs to be recalled
  • Location management i.e. what batch is in what storage location

Many major retailers now work to a respected accreditation such as BRC (British Retail Consortium) standards which aims to guarantee the standardisation of quality, safety and operational criteria to ensure manufacturers fulfil their legal obligations and provide protection for the end consumer.

How to recall by batch number

One of the key reasons the BRC and leading retailers demand lot number traceability is to make sure products can be recalled using their lot number.

When a small sample of overall output is identified by a lot number, a clear audit of where that product has come from and subsequently gone to is fundamental.

Without the correct systems, tracking batch numbers is open for human error

If a product is found to have an issue and needs to be destroyed, modified or simply flagged to customers, targeting a small sample of product identified by a lot or batch number narrows down the search. For example, if a new lot number is generated 3 times per day rather than once per week, the amount of stock which needs to be recalled is significantly reduced if the issue is isolated to one batch number.

Without the correct systems in place, tracking batch numbers is open for human error and time-consuming, but having to recall and destroy weeks worth of production can be catastrophic for businesses. So, it is well worth the effort.

If the correct software systems are in place, the effort needed to record this information and then provide an audit history when needed is significantly reduced. This offers a huge cost saving in manual labour but also helps prevent the cost of getting it wrong. Getting it wrong has put many organisations out of business or at least cost their reputation, which can be difficult to rebuild once tarnished.

Why track sell-by date (SBD) or expiry dates?

Batch numbers are often very closely linked to expiry dates or best before dates. Using both a date and a lot number to track items provides additional traceability and information to the consumer.

Getting it wrong has put many organisations out of business

All consumers are familiar with the well-established concept of an expiry date or best before date and for wholesalers and retailers, rotating stock by date is fundamental.

Major retailers will heavily fine suppliers for sending out of rotation stock into their stores and depots. This means that if product B (with a longer shelf life) arrives in the shop before product A (with a shorter shelf life) fine can be and are imposed, even if both shelf lives are suitable for the time the product spends on the shelf.

Shelf life by customer

In addition to the complexity of ensuring both expiry dates and batch numbers are tracked correctly, it is quite common for different customers to demand different minimum shelf life against a range of product.

When reviewing potential systems to support best practice food handling, be very specific in the logic required to allocate the correct stock for your clients. Also, ensure that the solution is robust enough to easily manage changing customer demands without hefty development costs.

The best way to track batch, lot and expiry dates

As a 3PL warehousing provider to the food industry or a wholesale food distribution business, there are several things you need to consider when deciding how best to track batch numbers and expiry dates.

7 Questions to ask regards batch tracking

  • Who will generate the batch number and expiry date?
  • How will it be displayed on the items?
  • Will it be barcoded? If so, what barcode format? Will there be one barcode with all the information on or separate barcodes for each attribute?
  • Will you be advised which batch numbers or expiry dates you should receive in advance? i.e. an ASN (advanced shipment notification).
  • What volume of deliveries will you be handling and how will it arrive e.g. pallets, cases or loose stock?
  • What will you be required to do with the information? Will you need to store it long term? Do you need to send the information anywhere? E.g. informing clients or suppliers where each batch has been sent?
  • Will you need to pick specific batches or pick by rotation/expiry date?

Once you can answer the above questions, you can better inform your software partner so they can support you through the process to minimise the time and cost associated in capturing this information and providing it to the relevant parties.

Help is at hand!

If your business is currently reviewing the need to track batch numbers, speak to one of our team to understand how ClarusWMS’ simple cloud subscription platform can streamline processes making data capture simple.

With a simple monthly subscription, no minimum term and users live in less than less than 2 weeks, ensure stock rotation is 100% and fines issued are at 0%!

ClarusWMS is a UK based supplier of cloud warehouse management solutions with a wealth of food industry experience.