The Food Marketing Institute joined a list of more than 40 agencies, suppliers and retailers such as Sysco, Wal-Mart and Food Lion, in endorsing the Produce Traceability Initiative last month.
PTI, sponsored by the Produce Marketing Association, the United Fresh Produce Association and the Canadian Produce Marketing Association is an industry-driven initiative calling for complete supply chain traceability of produce.
"Since 2002, the U.S. Bioterrorism Act has required that all food suppliers be able to trace produce one step forward and one step back," said Julia Stewart, public relations director at PMA. "But in the fall of 2006, the foodborne outbreak in leafy greens demonstrated that we needed to take our game to the next level and be able to trace all produce electronically across the entire supply chain."
Currently, different suppliers, wholesalers, distributors and retailers use different tracking methods, electronic and paper, to trace produce, making tracking down the source of tainted produce a challenge.
"Right now, if there's an outbreak, health officials start with the customer, find out where they bought the produce, and then trace the produce backward from one company to another," said Amy L. Philpott, vice president, communications at UFPA. "But because each company has its own language for tracking produce, it can be a cumbersome and lengthy process to translate these systems one step at a time all the way back to the farm."
The broader solution will be the implementation of product-specific lot numbers and Global Trade Identification Numbers in a universal technology language consistent across the produce supply chain.
The 14-digit GTINs will include details about the produce brand, company name, product description and other identifying markers.
"The GTIN will allow us to discover, at any one point, where in the supply chain a case of produce has been and who has touched it," said Philpott. "It will also give us very specific information on the produce. A case of bulk strawberries will have a different number than a case of strawberries on half-pound clamshells, for example."
The initiative is voluntary, and the sponsoring associations strongly encourage everyone in the produce industry to get involved, even though the cost of the transition is likely to be high.
"The greater produce supply chain will be spending hundreds of millions of dollars over the next few years to make it happen," said Stewart. "But industry leaders generally recognize that this initiative is vital and necessary."
"Everyone in the supply chain will have to pick it up to some degree," said Philpott. "There are many companies who have already made the transition to electronic traceability, and those companies will be able to modify and adapt their internal systems while companies that are still keeping paper records will have to take a bigger step."
Each company — supplier, wholesaler or retailer — will have to independently determine its own technological requirements and costs associated with adopting the new tracking system; proponents suggest the investment will pay off in terms of both food safety and inventory management.
"The obvious benefit is immediate action in the case of an outbreak," said Philpott. "But there are normal business benefits as well including better control of inventory, the ability to quickly pull mislabeled product or trace the location of produce needed for a sale by a certain date."
The sponsoring associations are committed to offering resources, tools and education to help businesses in the produce supply chain adopt the new protocols. By early next year the collaborating associations plan to have a one-stop PTI informational website set up.
In the meantime, a quick background and guide on GTIN can be found on PMA's site at:
An implementation timetable can be found in FMI's recent press release at:
For more info and support contact the sponsoring associations:
Produce Marketing Association: www.PMA.com
United Fresh Produce Association: www.unitedfresh.org
Canadian Produce Marketing Association: www.cpma.ca