Produce Traceability Initiative moves ahead

PHOTO COURTESY OF FRESH QC.
The FreshQC approach is PTI-compliant provides growers the ability to track each clamshell of strawberries right back to the individual picker in the field.

Technology allows us to instantly track our stock portfolio, our favorite sports teams—and, it turns out, even the food we eat. While tracking finances or football standings can be informative and entertaining, tracking food is a far more important matter. That’s why the Produce Traceability Initiative (PTI) was started back in 2006, and why leaders in the industry are pushing to have a comprehensive traceability system in place by 2012.

PTI is sponsored by the Produce Marketing Association (PMA), the United Fresh Produce Association and the Canadian Produce Marketing Association. These three groups are organizing the effort, which has support from more than 40 of the most influential produce suppliers, buyers and retailers—among them Applebee’s, McDonalds, U.S. Foodservice, Wal-Mart, Dole and many others. These companies have pledged to adopt—and require others they work with—to adopt the PTI guidelines within the next two years.

With PTI (www.producetraceability.org) becoming closer to a reality, it’s important for everyone to understand what’s involved, and to put in place the systems and tools needed to carry out the program. Many growers and packers will be required by buyers to take part. But even smaller growers who may sell primarily through CSAs, a farmstand or to local restaurants can learn and benefit from the initiative.

First, some background. “PMA is not new to traceability,” explains Julia Stewart, public relations director with the Produce Marketing Association. “We’ve been working to help bring some standardization to this area since the 1990s.” One of the forces driving that effort was the business efficiencies that traceability can bring. “Fresh foods are one of the last areas of a grocery store to [adopt] product identification standardization. Others have been doing it for a long time—everyone is now familiar with UPC codes. We’re talking about bringing that same kind of standardization and business efficiency to the produce industry,” she explains.

Of course the other benefit of instituting an electronic identification system for produce is a dramatically improved ability to investigate and track foods in the event of any contamination or foodborne illness outbreak. And, in fact, that’s what helped to spur creation of the Produce Traceability Initiative. Currently, those in the industry are required by the Bio-Terrorism Act of 2002 to trace their products, at least on paper, “one step forward and one step back.” But when a deadly 2006 E.coli outbreak occurred, “that made it very clear to the industry just how high the stakes are when there’s a foodborne illness outbreak. It became evident to PMA and others that we need to take our traceability capability to the next level,” Stewart explains.

The PTI was created to help the industry take that next step by making traceability standardized and electronic—and by putting the system in place supply-chain-wide. A PTI steering committee, representing the entire breadth of the produce industry, was formed in 2007 and spent nine months creating an action plan, which was unveiled in October 2008. The action plan includes seven milestones (see sidebar on page A10), as well as target completion dates for each. The overall goal is to achieve “standardized, electronic, chain-wide traceability” by 2012.

The mission is also to include everyone in the industry in that effort. “The view of the PTI is that we can’t have any holes in the safety net—that traceability needs to apply to everyone, big and small,” says Stewart, pointing out that the steering committee that created the PTI action plan made a special point of putting in place the resources and assistance needed to help smaller members of the industry comply. There are a number of Webinars and other training available to growers/packers/shippers; these and other resources can be found on the PTI Web site.

Stewart says the steering committee also strived to ensure that the action plan was practical in real-world settings, without creating an undue burden. For example, those already using traceability measures within their operations can simply augment those systems to meet PTI guidelines rather than starting from scratch. And, importantly, the requirements were kept simple: “PTI asks you to track two pieces of information at the case level as that case moves through the supply chain,” says Stewart. “Those two pieces of information are a Global Trade Item Number (GTIN) and the lot or batch number.” (Any Bio-Terrorism Act requirements, such as tracking company name and product ID, etc., still need to be tracked as well.)

PHOTO COURTESY OF HARVEST MARK
A PTI-compliant label from HarvestMark is seen on a case of watermelons. HarvestMark (www.harvestmark.com) offers both item and case-level traceability systems, both of which include codes that provide instant trace-back information on the Web or via cell phone.

The GTIN standard, created by a worldwide organization called GS1, has been used and proven in other industries. UPC bar codes on packaged foods, for example, are based on the GS1 standards. Those in the produce industry need to get a company prefix from GS1, and then assign GTINs to each case configuration. Once those numbers have been procured, they need to be transmitted to customers in the supply chain, so that they can begin tracking that information. “Eventually, we’ll get to the point where each case of product will have a label on it that is machine-readable (scannable) and human-readable (with text),” Stewart explains. “That information will be tracked electronically as the product moves through the supply chain.”

Some companies in the industry already are packaging products with bar codes, and already have a GS1 company prefix. They will simply need new GTINs and labels for their cases. Stewart says there already are a number of vendors in the marketplace offering the equipment and supplies necessary to help those in the industry meet PTI guidelines. (A list of those vendors, as well as questions to ask vendors before purchasing, can be found on the PTI Web site.)

Some growers may not need to get a GS1 prefix. “If someone else is packing for you and you don’t have your own marketing label, then you are not a ‘brand owner,’ and it would be up to whoever packs for you,” says Stewart. In those cases, it would be up to the packer to make arrangements with the grower to provide the information necessary to begin the traceability records for that product. “I know apple packers, for example, already get a lot of information from their growers—a field bin typically comes in with a label on it identifying the product and the section number it came out of in a particular orchard or field,” says Stewart. “In some industries, there may need to be a little more information recorded, but in many industries that type of record-keeping already is taking place.”

Stewart says that concerns within the industry regarding PTI requirements usually center on cost. “If you’re not already using bar code scanners for other reasons, then you might have a little more of a start-up cost than someone else who already is doing that,” she acknowledges.

However, Gary Wishnatzki, president of Wishnatzki Farms in Plant City, Fla., says growers and packers can make traceability a cost-saving step, if they implement a system that goes beyond the case-level traceability required by PTI to allow tracking of individual produce packages. Wishnatzki adopted the FreshQC traceability system in his own strawberry operation at the end of the 2008 season, and he asked all of the other strawberry growers he buys from to implement that trace-back system for 2009.

The FreshQC approach will be PTI-compliant, but Wishnatzki says the real value comes in the expanded ability it provides to track each clamshell of strawberries right back to the individual picker in the field. This level of detail, he says, is what makes traceability an opportunity rather than a burden for growers and shippers: “The ultimate goal is to be able to trace a consumer package all the way back to the field. That’s where the payback is for a grower, where they can actually make money on traceability.”

Wishnatzki was initially skeptical of how his harvest crews would react to the system, but says the traceability system was easy to explain didn’t hamper productivity in the field: “We already collected data in the field for payroll purposes, scanning workers’ badges for piece-rate, and this just built on top of that system,” he explains. “Now, we just scan the badge and the package, and that information is married together. There is no additional paperwork.” Even other growers not already using such technology found it easy to adopt, he adds.

Making workers accountable for what goes in each individual box not only contributes to ensuring food safety, but also helps improve the quality of the product and, ultimately, customer satisfaction. For example, Wishnatzki saw the level of his shipments rejected by buyers drop from around 4 percent to less than 1 percent. “Based on a rejection cost of $5 per flat, our growers and company saved over $500,000 in 2009 when measured against the prior two seasons,” he explains, emphasizing this is a way that traceability can quickly prove profitable.

While most traceability bar codes are placed on the bottom of packages, hidden from customers, Wishnatzki decided to display the information prominently on a “How’s My Picking?” sticker on top of each clamshell of strawberries, along with a request that customers call or visit the FreshQC Web site to provide feedback on the product. Wishnatzki says that led to a dramatic increase in invaluable customer input, helping provide insight not only on quality control but also customer preferences, etc. And, thanks to the electronic data scanned in the field, the number on each sticker allowed him to determine which picker was responsible for that clamshell whenever customer comments were received. He even introduced a system to reward workers with $20 gift cards whenever multiple positive feedback was received related to boxes they filled.

Instituting that level of traceability is an extra step beyond what is required by PTI, but one that Wishnatzki says can make the costs of implementing traceability pay for themselves: “If you are not tracing back to an individual worker and thus improving your quality, you will never recover the cost of traceability,” he states. “Conversely, if you tie back worker performance to your method, the system can pay great dividends. You can reduce the amount of rejected loads and improve your bottom line. Most importantly, you will protect the reputation of your brand.”

Stewart says that even case-level tracking provides potential cost savings opportunities. “It’s always easier to get things done when there’s one industry standard,” she explains. “Imagine a grower/packer/shipper who is selling to 15 different retailers, each of which has a different product identification process—they then have to do 15 times more work. It just makes sense to have one standard.”

Right now, the PTI remains an industry-driven program. Congress currently is considering food safety regulations of fresh produce that would require traceability. Some wonder if it would be better to wait for that legislation to take shape before adopting traceability in the industry, but Stewart says any bills that come out of Congress are unlikely to include specifics. “It will be up to the implementing agency—the FDA—to define what traceability means, and we think that will lead to the same solutions that PTI came up with. And we’ve been communicating with FDA, USDA and Congress throughout this process to let them know what we’ve come up with, and encouraging them to look at PTI as the model to follow.”

Produce Traceability Initiative (PTI) Action Plan Milestones

Milestone #1
Obtain company GS1 prefix

Milestone #2
Assign GTIN numbers to all of their various case configurations

Milestone #3
Provide GTIN information to buyers

Milestone #4
Print or affix human-readable information on case

Milestone #5
Encode information in a bar code on case which can be accurately scanned and recorded by buyers and receivers

Milestone #6
Read and store information on inbound cases

Milestone #7
Read and store information on outbound cases

Patrick White is a freelance writer and editor who is always on the lookout for interesting and unusual stories.