The future of produce tracking

Photo by Bob M. Montgomery.

Once a box leaves the farm, growers typically ask: Where is it? And, how fast did the inventory turn? Both questions summarize the serious challenge facing growers who need to track their product the whole way through the supply chain—from field to fork.

These questions are not as simple as each might seem. In fact, a progressive industry group hopes to be able to answer many of those questions accurately by 2012. Called the Produce Traceability Initiative (PTI), their program hopes to move the supply chain to a common standard for electronic produce traceability—down to the individual case level. PTI is a key initiative that will help solve distribution questions facing growers.

Right now, a number of grower groups, buyers and distributors are working together to make that kind of information available. That means being able to say exactly which route a box of fruit took from the farm to the packing plant, from the plant across the state or across the country to a distributor, and from the distributor to a grocery store and into the consumer’s refrigerator.

Each box—and in many cases, each item—must be tracked from its source. Loads of fruit from different growers often are combined, but each grower’s fruits or vegetables must be identifiable separately when someone from USDA or the Department of Transportation starts asking questions about where a particular apple or box of sweet corn originated. How many days was it in transit? What route did it follow? Was it processed on line A or line D at the distribution center? Did the grocer receive it late in the afternoon (perhaps letting it sit outside overnight) or was it handled promptly after an early-morning delivery?

“PTI will be beneficial in the long term,” says Dan Vaché, vice president of supply chain management for United Fresh Produce Association, Washington, D.C. Vaché emphasizes that this is a long-term program, but there can be short-term benefits.

“PTI is an opportunity to step back, look at business processes,” he says. “Go beyond tracing goods to process improvement.” That would turn PTI from a cost to an investment to improve internal processes. First, however, it is important to understand PTI.

There are 34 companies—including such major names as Fresh Express, the International Foodservice Distributors Association, Safeway, Sysco Corporation, Kroger and Wal-Mart—that have joined the effort. Grower groups like the United Fresh Produce Association (United Fresh) and Produce Marketing Association (PMA) are on board. And, in Canada, the Canadian Produce Marketing Association (CPMA) is participating. The original steering committee involved representatives of more than 30 organizations from a broad cross-section of the produce supply chain including retailers, foodservice buyers and produce suppliers in an effort to enhance traceability throughout the supply chain. Their first meeting was in January 2008 and Steve Potter, senior vice president of industry relations for the International Foodservice Distributors Association (IFDA) in McLean, Va., was part of that committee, representing IFDA.

“Improving traceability will provide efficiencies by helping speed up the recall process and reducing the amount of produce being returned unnecessarily,” Potter adds.

That steering committee developed an action plan to help the industry address the challenges involved in recalls, and included the promotion of industry-wide traceability best practices, establishing timelines and goals for adoption and a creating validation process for accountability, Potter explains.

“It was evident that we must work together to help drive a more comprehensive, industry-wide commitment to trace back and trace forward systems that could be used throughout the produce supply chain to protect consumers and businesses,” he says.

PTI’s goal is to develop a standardized system of bar coding for all produce. This bar code, applied at point of origin, will allow produce to be tracked throughout the distribution chain.

Part of the benefit will accrue to growers and their distributors by maximizing internal efficiencies. If the promise of easier tracking pays off, this will also be a boost to public health and agriculture officials when they need to trace the origin or distribution chain for a product. Several industries have been the target of investigations recently for safety or health issues, and a good tracking system would sort out the innocent from the tainted quickly and with less chance of injury to producers whose fruits or vegetables are not involved.

The process being promoted by the group involves the use of GS1 standards, global trade identification numbers (GTINs), lot numbers and pack/harvest dates physically shown on every case or on every case label. This would allow product to be traced each time it changes hands as it passes through the supply chain, Potter explains.

There are currently several subgroups working on educational materials to give everyone a sense of what can be expected during implementation.

Today, most companies have “internal” traceability programs, but not “external” ones. With internal traceability, a company maintains the confidential or proprietary data and processes it uses within its own span of operations to track/trace product.

External traceability covers the exchange of data and business processes that take place between trading partners to track/trace product. The grail would be Whole-Chain Traceability, or a complete combination of both internal and external traceability.

Right now, the PTI uses a GTIN to achieve external traceability. A GTIN number is 14 digits long and includes a GS1 company prefix that can be readily incorporated into a UPC bar code and works with RFID or human-readable codes. It also includes a unique item reference number. The so-called “GTIN Assignment Strategy” was created specifically for helping suppliers ensure consistency when assigning GTINs to cases by using standard product attributes to organize and categorize products for GTIN assignment.

Similarly, to ensure that one label can be used for the entire industry, a standard case label template has also been created as a result of the GTIN Produce Pilot conducted in the fall of 2006.

To facilitate tracking, the GTIN and a lot number will be standardized. The GTIN will identify the “brand owner” and type of product in the case, while the lot number will specifically identify the lot or batch where the produce came from. Inclusion of these numbers will bring connectivity between companies across the chain. This information will be both human-readable and scannable by a bar code reader.

A grower could potentially have hundreds of product codes, which might include several attributes beyond grade or label. Yet only three primary GTIN case codes would be required to be communicated and used by the buyer. This will minimize the numbers that need to be communicated and maintained between trading partners.

There are about a dozen key attributes that would be attached to every box of fruit or produce: the commodity, variety, place of origin, grade, size, count, shipping container, inner pack style, size and quantity and growing method.

All told, these statistics would provide a wealth of information about product shipped. It could spare some growers the heartache and financial burden of being wrongly singled out if there is a problem suspected with a certain type of produce. And, it would help government agencies, warehouses and grocers remove problem produce from the supply chain so business could return to normal as promptly as possible.

How PTI Might Work
United Fresh offers the following (fictitious) example of how a grower might bar
code a shipment of fruit.Note that the basic code numbers remain quite similar, but
there is flexibility for important specifics.
For 80 count Fuji apples, GTIN = 0 0 123456 00001 4
For 90 count Fuji apples, GTIN = 0 0 123456 00002 7
For 100 count Fuji apples, GTIN = 0 0 123456 00003 2
Cathy Green, chief operating officer at Food Lion, chaired the committee that
designed the system. She says that while implementing the initiative will be a multiyear
effort, she feels it is achievable.
“The new plan is achievable by companies large and small across the entire supply
chain, works with companies’ existing information management systems and
supports public health goals, as well as provides industry benefits,” Green says.

Curt Harler is a freelance writer in Strongsville, Ohio.