Coding: A Digital Signature

As marketing manager for brand protection solutions at Videojet Technologies, Jack Walsh knows a thing or two about product authentication. In the past 40 years, his company has installed more than 275,000 product coding machines worldwide that help manufacturers authenticate their raw material components and track the global distribution of finished goods.

And no crisis has dramatized the need for “cradle to grave” product protection more than the contaminated pet food that made its way into the supply chain last December and caused the death and liver disease of dozens if not hundreds of cats and dogs. Ultimately the contamination was traced to the undetected introduction of aflatoxin — a deadly substance produced by fungus that leads to severe liver damage if ingested — into the product produced by Diamond Pet Foods.

Walsh says that while more stringent ingredient monitoring may not have prevented the contamination — after all, they can't test every raw material — it would have made it easier for Diamond and other manufacturers to deal with the aftermath.

“At the moment, the industry is struggling to determine who has unsafe product and what to do about it,” says Walsh. “In this case, someone counterfeited a product and got it into the pet food chain. Brand protection is about keeping track of what the manufacturers have control over, what went through their plants, and what they shipped off to customers. The supplies, materials, and ingredients that go into pet food — there's no traceability there. They don't know what they're putting into their product.

“We could have helped the industry ensure that [pet food manufacturers] are dealing with authorized and authentic ingredients,” explains Walsh. “Once a problem was identified and the specific sources were known, the entire industry would have been better equipped to avoid or discard any of the tainted sources.”

Protecting Consumers

Product tampering first became part of the consumer conscience in 1982, when bottles of Extra-Strength Tylenol capsules, produced by Johnson and Johnson, were laced with cyanide. By the end of the crisis, seven people had died. Although the incident was a result of product tampering and not manufacturer neglect, it did result in the rise of tamper-evident packaging that helps protect consumers once a product leaves the manufacturing facility.

The use of coding equipment adds a level of security by allowing manufacturers to give every product a “digital signature,” akin to a car's license plate, that is unique to each of the millions of identical products that are mass produced and affect the health and subsequent confidence of consumers and expose manufacturers to the greatest liability. Simply, says Walsh, “We give them ways of authenticating their product.”

Using such systems, the manufacturers of pharmaceuticals, nutraceuticals, food and beverages, and others can track their products through the major steps in the distribution process and speed targeted recalls, since both the component and subsequent batches can be identified by unique tracking codes.

“Most of the customers simply need a visible code,” says Walsh. “There's a background system for logging and tracking these codes. As each event occurs, when it's shipped to the distributor or whipped through the chain, those things are recorded.”

Coding application systems often are used among layers of security: laser and thermal transfer marks, covert inks, specialty fonts, foil stamps, and holograms, making it difficult to duplicate.

“The thing that makes (coding) work is that every product can get a unique ID on the consumer level,” says Walsh, which most converters cannot do with their standard equipment. “They need equipment that can print digital data at press speeds” and not duplicate the codes.

Walsh says there are several levels of concern, including counterfeiting, theft, and label accuracy. Counterfeiting is a lesser concern than process documentation because it is beyond the manufacturer's control and thereby negates liability.

“When I got into brand protection, I couldn't stop talking about counterfeiting,” explains Walsh. “Once something becomes a brand, people are willing to buy it. It's easy to move the product. So, the bad guys come in and say, ‘People buy Levi's. How can we make money off it?’ We can't prevent counterfeiting, but we can help customers authenticate their brand.

“Now that I've talked to thousands of customers, counterfeiting is not the problem they're really concerned about. They're all keen on protecting that supply chain and that brand. Most consumers can see and smell knock-offs, and the brand is not really liable. Gucci is not concerned because it's so obvious.”

Although the use of coding technology has not reached the point where consumers can confirm the authenticity of a code, it's coming. “I don't know how long it's going to take,” says Walsh, “but at some point in the future the consumer will be able to…confirm [a product] came through an authorized distributor. The consumer aspect is there to be taken advantage of, but no one has done it yet.”

Supplier information:
Videojet Technologies — PFFC-ASAP 394.

Subscribe to PFFC's EClips Newsletter