We’ve recently talked about Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) traceability requirements and GS1 standards and the FSMA traceability lot code. Today, we’re covering FSMA 204 data carrier requirements: FDA guidance and — once again — GS1 standards, including incorporating the mandated traceability lot code into compliant barcodes.
Like our previous post, we’re basing much of this discussion on GS1’s March 1, 2023, industry guidance document, “Application of GS1 System of Standards to Support FSMA 204.” For an in-depth description of GS1 data carriers, check out our “Understanding GS1 Barcodes in the Global Supply Chain” article.
Data carriers: a quick definition for context
A building block for traceability in any supply chain, data carriers enable product information to be quickly and accurately captured, stored, shared, and leveraged for business needs. Companies can mark their entire product hierarchy — from individual items and inner packs to cases/boxes and pallets — with data carriers, which include barcodes (e.g., linear, 2D DataMatrix codes, and QR codes).
Do GS1 barcodes meet FSMA 204 data carrier requirements?
The short answer is “yes.”
However, FSMA does not mandate the use data carriers to provide product information and the FDA does not say what data must be present to meet the FSMA traceability requirements. This is stated clearly in Federal Register Response 524, in which the FDA says that “firms may use product labels to provide the information required [our emphasis] to their supply chain partners if that suits their business practices.”
In the context of this question, suggestions for “product labels” included twist ties, bags, food-grade stickers, and traditional-type labels on produce or customer order forms. For GS1, product labels mean data carriers, primarily barcodes.
What does GS1 say about FSMA 204 data carriers?
In its guidance document, GS1 says this about the FSMA 204 data carrier requirements (or lack thereof):
“Data carriers are not required to meet the requirements of the Final Rule. For this reason, there is no clear prescription of what data must be present in a data carrier to fulfill traceability for the Final Rule. Instead, companies must evaluate what data will enable rapid access to the necessary information in the event the FDA requests their records.”
GS1 explains three types of data carriers that might have applications for the FSMA 204:
- GS1 Element String (1D and 2D), which can contain the primary identifier (e.g., Global Trade Item Number, or GTIN) and attribute data (e.g., lot/batch number, expiration date, sell-by date, net weight)
- GS1 Digital Link URI (2D), a web-compatible format that can contain the primary identifier and attribute data
- Electronic Product Code Uniform Resource Identifier (EPC URI), which can contain the primary identifier with a serial number plus attribute data for use in RFID tags, primarily UHF passive tags (also called RAIN RFID).
Using GS1 barcodes as a FSMA 204 data carrier
Below are some examples of how GS1 barcodes might look when used as FSMA 204 data carriers. (We’re not going to get into RAIN RFID today.)
Specifically, we want to illustrate how these barcodes could meet the FSMA traceability lot code requirement, which GS1 says a GTIN + batch/lot numbers would satisfy. (Read our article here for more about the traceability lot code.) In the illustrative images below, we’ve highlighted the GS1 Application Identifiers (AIs) for GTIN (01), lot/batch number (10), and expiration date (17). AIs tell systems what information is being interacted with and enable them to process that information accordingly.
GS1-128. GS1-128 is a 1D barcode that can be up to 6.5 inches long and have up to 48 data characters. In terms of FSMA 204 data carriers, GS1 includes an “important” note that “1D barcodes cannot be removed until all stakeholders expected to scan the barcode are fully capable of interacting with 2D barcodes. This means that both a 1D and 2D barcode would be required during any transition period.”
GS1 DataMatrix. GS1 DataMatrix codes are omnidirectional and support attributes and all GS1 identification keys. They can hold 3,116 numeric or 2,335 alphanumeric characters.
GS1 DataMatrix + GS1 Digital Link URI. The GS1 Digital Link URI essentially turns data carriers into web links. GS1 says that “scanning capabilities are not widely available for GS1 Digital Link URI in general distribution,” so companies would have to update their systems in order to process these barcodes and the data they contain.
GS1 QR Code + GS1 Digital Link URI. Like GS1 DataMatrix codes, GS1 QR codes are omnidirectional and support attributes and all GS1 ID keys; however, they can hold 7,089 numbers or 4,296 alphanumeric characters. Some mobile device cameras cannot process DataMatrix codes, so GS1 says QR Codes are “the current preference for engagement through mobile devices.”
Let’s repeat what we said in our post about GS1 and FSMA traceability requirements:
One takeaway from today’s article is that the FDA might be telling food companies what the FSMA traceability requirements are, but it’s not telling them how to comply. This is why it’s important to understand GS1’s “take” on the situation and the rationale behind its suggestions.
Food companies are already using GS1 barcodes; adapting them as FSMA 204 data carriers or “product labels” makes good sense. GTINs, batch/lot numbers, Serialized Shipping Container Code (SSCC) data, and other information can be encoded into GS1-128, GS1 DataMatrix, GS1 QR code barcode configurations, as well as Electronic Product Code-enabled RAIN RFID tags and labels.
Contact us today if you’d like to learn more about using a barcode as a FSMA 204 data carrier, how to integrate data capture technology into you FSMA 204 compliance strategy, and everything else you need to have in place by the January 2026 deadline. A short talk with one of our supply chain experts will get you going in the right direction or help you course-correct if you feel like you’ve been treading water with your FSMA initiatives.
And if you’re interested in learning how we’ve put more than 1.5 billion of barcodes on as many products to help a major berry producer control product safety and quality, click here.