Code plan to better track fresh food

The international rationalisation of identifying numerical codes on items of fresh produce at the supermarket holds the promise of improving inventory control and sales history keeping, as well as making the items more traceable.

The international rationalisation of identifying numerical codes on items of fresh produce at the supermarket holds the promise of improving inventory control and sales history keeping, as well as making the items more traceable.

At present the checkout operator at each supermarket punches in a four-digit code. The numbers used in such price lookup (PLU) codes are far from consistent, even among different retailers in one country.

A three-level system is planned, says Margaret Fitzgerald, head of EAN New Zealand, which has been entrusted with the local end of the standardisation effort. Produce that is widely internationally traded will bear a unique PLU code. Some codes will be specific within a region, such as the Pacific, for produce only traded there. Codes for use only within one retailer’s chain will only have to be unique within that company.

Fewer than 2000 food products are currently traded in all four of the regions into which EAN divides the world, says EAN NZ spokesman Robert Turner, so the highest level will still fit within four digits.

Eventually EAN sees the numbers being encoded, together with a manufacturer identifier, into a barcode. This will make them more easily readable and enable produce suspected of contamination, for example, to be tracked back to the source.

This development, however, is likely to be three to five years away, says Turner. A standard EAN barcode will not fit conveniently on small items like pieces of fruit, and EAN sees promise in new “reduced space symbology” (RSS) codes, which are physically smaller. The RSS-14 standard, for example, achieves this with a double row of bars one above the other.

Scanners will, however, need to be modified to read such codes, at a cost that may run into thousands of dollars per scanner.

Fitzgerald says the first release of global PLU codes could be ready this month.

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