Why Use GS1 Digital Link 2D Codes – Today?

Don't wait for January 2027 to comply with FDA's Traceability Rule; the new codes improve supply chain traceability and efficiencies from farm to fork, plus safety, sales, and sustainability benefits.

Steve Gryczka, director of strategy and corporate development, Markem-Imaje

June 11, 2024

7 Min Read
Shopper uses 2D Code
Olena Miroshnichenko/iStock/Getty Images

Product codes are changing, presenting new challenges and opportunities for fresh food producers, manufacturers, packagers, and retailers alike. The global standards body GS1 is preparing to transition from one-dimensional UPC barcodes to a new 2D barcode format: the GS1 Digital Link. The official sunrise period for 2D codes starts in 2027 when industry internationally will start accepting 2D codes at point-of-sale (POS) or point-of-care (POC).

The change means that barcodes will be gradually upgraded from the traditional 1D barcode with its global trade item numbers (GTINs) of 14 numbers to 2D barcodes that have increased data capacity to include the product GTIN as well as URLs and an important amount of additional embedded product and production data for manufacturers, retailers, and consumers to use. 

The new standard will mark a significant shift in product identification, digitally connecting products, and establishing dynamic production data or “hot data” as a global standard for the first time. It will make much more product information accessible to the entire supply chain to improve consumer experience, enable more product sales, and drive efficiencies across the supply chain from brand to retailer.

End-to-end connectivity

For businesses, a key benefit of the new GS1 Digital Link 2D codes will be the ability to embed a larger amount of personalized and variable product information in the barcode. These codes need to be in the format of GS-1 standard Digital Link codes such as the QR or Data Matrix codes to create connected products that can easily be used by all the different stakeholders from the production line right along the supply chain to the end consumer.

Related:Where’s Your Packaged Food? FDA Will Need to Know

Complete product traceability

The GS1 Digital Link 2D code will enable consumers to access nutrition tables, expiry dates, recall warnings, and promotional offers with the swipe of their smartphones.

Companies could benefit from accurate traceability at every stage of the supply chain and in multiple languages via just one smartphone-scannable code. With 2D codes capable of holding much more data than a 1D code, the need for an external database to retain data is removed. This simplifies the process of data management and reduces dependency on centralized systems for traceability.

Challenges: data management and coding

While the GS1 Digital Link presents many steps forward in product labeling and branding, it also poses two key challenges to business.

The first relates to the content of the code itself and what and how much information will be embedded in the barcode. The new standard will impact the management of data: both the data flow to and from the production line, as well as serialized and hot data, that needs to be embedded in the code. Companies may need to aggregate data from business systems (such as, ERP) as well as production lines for use in 2D GS1 Digital Link barcodes.

Related:New Packaging Code to Revolutionize Parenteral Pharmaceuticals

As Digital Link barcodes containing production data will need to be printed inline at the product packaging facility, the second challenge that companies must address while transitioning to the standard is to ensure that they have the right printing technology for the application.

Some simpler applications, such as lot-specific production data with static information, mean coding could be done offline with pre-printed labels. Other applications, however, demand dynamic or variable data, meaning on-the-fly or inline printing which most easily facilitates this. Most common current printing and labeling technologies are capable of printing dynamic 2D barcodes together with a software package allowing serialization. These include Continuous Inkjet (CIJ), Print and apply technology (P&A), Thermal transfer overprinting (TTO), Thermal Inkjet (TIJ), and laser printing including fiber, CO2, and UV types.

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Implications for the industry

For fresh food producers and retailers: 2D codes are ideal for food producers and their retailers, especially for fresh, shorter shelf-life foods because the codes support dynamic pricing, and can help to reduce waste and improve product recall efficiency. Food companies can add more accurate best-before or eat-by dates even down to the individual unit level if they so desire, helping to strengthen product quality and brand perception. 2D codes also streamline product recalls by enabling tracking right down to the individual product level.  

For producers in the US, 2D codes can play a key role in supporting the FDA’s Food Traceability Final Rule. This This regulation will require the entire supply chain from producers to retailers to be able to trace the movement of certain fresh food products from fruit to fish at every stage of the supply chain. QR codes are recommended for ensuring a high level of traceability and to speed up the process of their localization from days to hours. This will allow significantly faster recalls, potentially limiting contamination outbreaks to better protect brands. 

Another major advantage of using dynamic 2D codes on fresh food products is the ability to manage stock levels somewhat predictively. As brands and retailers gain a real-time view of consumption levels, they can use that information to reduce unnecessary production of goods with a limited shelf life, reducing waste. This not only addresses a major problem the production sector is struggling to resolve but could potentially save vast amounts of money.

There are still more advantages. Dynamic codes allow food retailers to change prices on the fly, which is ideal for clearing stocks of fresh food products in a consumer-friendly way before the end of their shelf life.

Because 2D codes can hold a vast array of production information from batch numbers to safety information, food producers can make more comprehensive information available to their customers, for example on provenance. This can boost brand perception and open a world of marketing opportunities.

Coded case

Implications for manufacturers

For manufacturers: Companies seeking to advance brand awareness and customer loyalty will find 2D codes a valuable way to connect and build rapport with their target markets via both static and dynamic online content. Static content can be as simple but effective as providing a scannable link to a static website containing information on a brand’s responsible sourcing policies to boost its public perception or to recipes using the product in question.

Dynamic or unique codes on products offer still more marketing possibilities. Customers can be offered personalized content based on individual shoppers’ buying preferences. These can range from loyalty discounts to gamification experiences. Dynamic codes present a powerful new marketing tool for manufacturers seeking to increase brand awareness and loyalty — without costly advertising campaigns.  

For marketing and package design departments: The GS1 Digital Link also provides a valuable opportunity to reimagine product packaging. Accessing full, multilingual ingredient lists and much more information can be accessed via a 2D code, maximizing design space for bolder and more sophisticated branding. And thanks to innovation in industrial printing technologies, 2D codes are now largely unlimited by substrates or surfaces, meaning packaging companies can adapt more easily to changing market tastes and customer requirements.

GS1 Digital Link codes can also facilitate the inclusion of other market-specific information such as tax or import codes, with the UK, for example, deciding to switch to digital-only codes for imports. 

Reaping the rewards of digitalization requires action now

Taking advantage of this added flexibility will demand a step change in companies’ coding technology, presenting planning and financial implications. Packagers may need to upgrade their existing technology if it is unable to print smartphone-scannable 2D codes, or consider using pre-printed labels with tightly controlled verification to ensure that the correct code is applied to its corresponding package.

While the 2027 sunrise period for GS1 Digital Link 2D codes marks a major shift the market has been progressing towards the printing of 2D codes over the past decade. According to the GS1, the transformation is well underway, with retailers already updating 80% of POS scanners to be able to read the GS1 Digital Link. 

Adopting 2D codes poses key challenges but also facilitates advanced traceability, better regulatory compliance, waste reduction, dynamic labeling, and many other benefits. With the right preparation, fresh food producers, manufacturers, retailers, and packagers alike can ensure that they reap the considerable rewards of the GS1 Digital Link.

About the Author(s)

Steve Gryczka

director of strategy and corporate development, Markem-Imaje

Stephen Gryczka is director of strategy and corporate development at Markem-Imaje, a leading, global provider of end-to-end supply chain solutions and industrial marking and coding systems, where he has worked for two decades leading various product management, corporate development, and corporate strategy teams and initiatives. He is the company’s expert in global product identification requirements and compliance across market sectors, including the globally accepted GS1 standards.

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