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Produce Tracking Slow in Coming

By Curt Harler




The Produce Traceability Initiative uses a Global Trade Item Number (GTIN) to provide external traceability on vegetables and fruits. A GTIN is 14 digits long and includes a Global Standards One company prefix that can be readily incorporated into a UPC.
Photos courtesy of Dynamic Systems, www.a-barcode.com, unless otherwise noted. Map courtesy of .

It's been five years since the Produce Traceability Initiative (PTI) got started, and it will likely be another two or three years before it is widespread in the produce industry. The initiative, kicked off in 2008, promises to move the produce supply chain to a common standard for electronic produce traceability- tracking vegetables and fruit from farm to market, down to the individual case level.

While there has been much hype about the initiative, and its benefits to the industry as a whole seem obvious, there's still some question as to when it will actually happen. "It might be just around the corner, but there is some question as to where that corner is," quips Udi Sosnik, marketing director at Orange Enterprises.

The company, which has sold ag software for decades, now offers the Payroll Employee Tracking and traceability software (PET Tiger) system. The software tracks each piece in a packing line or in the field and measures the quantity of pieces against the pace at which crew members pack them. Data is collected to automate payroll, cost accounting and traceability. Other companies offer produce tracking solutions, including Dynamic Systems, HarvestMark, MSA Systems and HarvesterGear. However, Sosnik says, "PTI is on the back burner for most operations; there still is no conclusive move to adopt PTI."

Sosnik and others place blame for the delay on major buyers like grocery chains.

"We've seen great progress on the supply side," says Dan Vaché, vice president of supply chain management for the United Fresh Produce Association, Washington, D.C. "Right now our unaudited studies show anywhere from 20 to 35 percent of cases are labeled for PTI compliance," notes Vaché.

He says a number of grocers are among the early adopters demanding PTI-compliant produce boxes, especially among the smaller, regional retail outlets. In one East Coast market, fully 40 percent of shipments are PTI-compliant. But what about the rest?

"We're waiting for the top five or 10 [retailers] to start," Vaché says. He notes that many beneficial programs are slow to start, but once they gain momentum they become the industry standard. "It took a while for the industry to go to the standard 48-by-40 pallet," he says, adding that he is not "selling" PTI, simply providing education.

How PTI works

PTI uses a Global Trade Item Number (GTIN) to provide external traceability on vegetables and fruits. A GTIN is 14 digits long and includes a Global Standards One (GS1) company prefix that can be readily incorporated into a Universal Product Code (UPC). It works with radio-frequency identification (RFID) or human-readable codes and also includes a unique item reference number.



A number of companies offer solutions for tracking produce. Dynamic Systems' products include SIMBA Produce Traceability Software, SIMBA Mobile and SIMBA Lite.

The so-called "GTIN Assignment Strategy" was created specifically to help suppliers ensure consistency when assigning GTINs to the 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 was created.

To facilitate tracking, two pieces of information - a GTIN and a lot number - were standardized. The GTIN identifies the "brand owner" and type of product in the case, while the lot number specifically identifies the lot or batch where the produce came from. Inclusion of these numbers links companies across the chain. This information can be read by humans or scanned by a bar code reader.

Experts say PTI has already led to more specific, less devastating produce recalls. Last year's cantaloupe crisis, for example, was more like a firecracker than a bomb, thanks to the industry's ability to pinpoint the problem.

For a big operation, PTI has benefits, and they are able to cover the costs. That economic model is not as compelling for a smaller producer.

"It is going to be an expensive proposition," Sosnik says.

However, there is little hope that any major produce shipper, packer or buyer will escape it. The GTIN system for PTI is used internationally. In fact, international suppliers, well aware that many in the U.S. market feel that the "foreign" food supply is suspect, are already PTI-compliant.

Ten years ago, the time to trace food from farm to fork was about three days. This gave plenty of time for media firestorms to ignite and rage through an entire product's profits for the year. Peppers and tomatoes were among the items savaged by panics. In an era of instant news, three days is too long a time frame to allow ag or health officials to pinpoint and isolate the source of a health problem and make an orderly recall. Once PTI is fully implemented and tracking information is recorded, it will be just a matter of hours or minutes to track a problem from source to market, or vice versa, and to exonerate all the other produce marketers.



The Produce Safety Alliance is developing a nationwide curriculum to increase understanding of the principles of GAPs and to facilitate the implementation of food safety practices on fresh fruit and vegetable farms and in packinghouses.

The code must include data on what is contained in a case of fruits or vegetables, the manufacturer, and the harvest and packing dates. The code can be read by humans and machines.

The initiative was seen as a boon to public health, as well as to agriculture officials who need to trace the origin and distribution chain for produce. Throughout the past decade, several industries were the target of investigations for safety or health issues, besmirching both the wholesome and the tainted. Producers realized that a good tracking system would sort out the innocent from the problematic quickly and with less chance of injury to producers whose fruits and/or vegetables are not involved.

Thirty-four companies, including Fresh Express, the International Foodservice Distributors Association, Safeway, Sysco Corp., Kroger and Walmart, spearheaded the original effort. Grower groups like the United Fresh Produce Association and Produce Marketing Association got on board. In Canada, the Canadian Produce Marketing Association participated.

The original steering committee involved representatives of more than 30 organizations from a broad cross section of the produce supply chain, including retailers, food service buyers and produce suppliers, in an effort to enhance traceability throughout the supply chain. The first meeting was held in January 2008.

Today, Sosnik says, there is still not a uniform accepted standard. "Kroger, Safeway, Costco ... each has its own requirements," he notes. They are among the big 10 that have not yet gotten on board.

"Remember the Walmart RFID initiative?" he asks, referring to a much-ballyhooed 2005 proposal to use radio-frequency ID to tag cartons and boxes. "It still hasn't happened."



The Produce Traceability Initiative promises to move the produce supply chain to a common standard for electronic produce traceability-tracking vegetables and fruit from farm to market, down to the individual case level.
Photo courtesy of Orange Enterprises.

Why the slowdown?

Vaché would counter with the success in getting PLU (price lookup) stickers on individual fruit, although that did not provide instant gratification either.

"It didn't happen overnight," he admits, "but everyone came to the party."

Everyone in the produce industry recognizes that any product is only one more health scare away from a disaster.

"Everyone wants to be able to surgically remove the [infected] product," Vaché says.

Part of the reason why the big retailers have not yet begun to run with the ball reflects back on the bright promise of PTI. In the first few years of promotion and deployment, PTI was all about the supply side. Retailers were supportive of farm and distributor efforts and were among the key players in getting PTI off the ground. Even as this happened, big retail companies began to look into what was required on their end to track and record numbers.

Outside events changed the landscape for grocers. During this time, there was much consolidation going on in the grocery and food service industries. Some companies merged, others were acquired.

Given the poor economy of the early 2000s, most buyers allowed islands of computer technology to remain in place at the businesses they acquired. It was more economical. However, the coming of PTI provided an incentive to move forward, upgrade and consolidate those many IT systems. It is not cost-effective to implement PTI or any other software on a variety of computer platforms. Having a single, unified platform is easier to manage and more economical to put into practice.

If a company is going to unify platforms for PTI, why not for other systems too? Through the lean years, the IT people at those top retailers banked a laundry list of computer add-ons and upgrades they wanted to implement. Their argument, which is a good one, was that they could upgrade the IT infrastructures while they became PTI-compliant in the process. Bringing all those diverse systems under one umbrella takes a while.

"They said, 'Let's step back and be sure we are doing this for the future,'" Vaché says. That added more time to the adoption cycle. "That's OK," he adds. "It is voluntary."



Once PTI is fully implemented and tracking information is recorded, it will be just a matter of hours or minutes to track a problem from source to market, or vice versa.
Photo courtesy of Orange Enterprises.

For the small farms

Some producers at the lower end of the production chain have yet to implement PTI simply because they cannot, or will not, stomach the costs. Until it is required and being used by the grocers, why do it?

Proponents of PTI say produce safety applies to small farms as well as the large corporate operations. The question is how to get broad-based support. Cornell University is leading one effort to get everyone on board.

The Produce Safety Alliance (PSA), a joint effort of Cornell, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration, is developing a nationwide curriculum to increase understanding of the principles of what they term "good agricultural practices" (GAPs) and to facilitate the implementation of food safety practices on fresh fruit and vegetable farms and in packinghouses.

PSA programs are targeted to the small and very small-scale farms and packinghouses - those that market directly to consumers, have gross sales of under $500,000, or have an immediate need of assistance in understanding and implementing food safety practices.

When the big buyers do get into high gear, the time frame is apt to be swift. Vaché says they will probably inform their suppliers that they expect all PTI-compliant shipments within 30 days or three months. In some cases there may be a season's worth of latitude, but don't count on it.

Thus, it is a good idea for producers and packers to be ready to go. And in fact, many are prepared and could ramp up their systems in a month or so. They simply see little reason to do so until their buyers are ready.

The United Fresh website, www.unitedfresh.org, is a good source of information on how PTI-ready an operation is, including a checklist for suppliers.

Moving ahead

"We know there are a number on the supply side who did their homework, ran a pilot, and got the hardware and software in place," Vaché says. "But they mothballed it until someone is going to record and store the information they produce."

He adds, "It may take only one or two of the big ones to get everyone's attention. There is a need for PTI and everyone sees it. The buy side cannot afford to buy produce that does not have good traceability."

There is a cost. Everyone agrees on that. However, Vaché emphasizes, "PTI is an investment in your business. Food safety is an ongoing global issue. It is not going away."

Curt Harler, who has a B.S. in agriculture from Penn State University and an M.S. in ag from The Ohio State University, is a full-time freelance writer.