Produce Traceability Initiative

by Bruce Peterson

The subject of traceability in produce has been a topic of vigorous debate and discussion for several years now. In recent months, much of the produce industry’s discourse has centered on the Produce Traceability Initiative (PTI), which has been spearheaded through a joint effort of the Produce Marketing Association (PMA), United Fresh (United) and the Canadian Produce Marketing Association (CPMA). This project came about as an attempt to provide an industry platform for a more efficient and effective response to a food borne illness that was attributable to fresh fruits and vegetables.

It’s important to understand that the produce industry has always had systems and processes that enabled grower/shippers and their trading partners to respond to a product recall. History provides many instances of various responses that went into effect given notification of an outbreak. But history also illuminates a variety of challenges associated with an effective and efficient response. Among those, but not limited to, are some of these challenges:

  1. There is not a common process by which all, or most, of the produce supply chain participants follow to accomplish an effective and efficient recall.  Products at the pallet, case, and item level are indentified in different ways, handled in different ways, and accounted for in different ways. While this enables traceability within a specific supply chain, it makes it difficult to do between supply chains.
  2. How product is presented to consumers is different between commodities and different between various channels (i.e. retail, food service, wholesale, etc.).  Some product is packaged, some bulk, and other product is used as recipe ingredients.  Some product is large (watermelons) and other product is quite small (Serrano peppers). This makes traceability to the item level problematic.
  3. Fruit and vegetable production is highly fragmented and the size and scale vary widely. Production seasons also vary greatly with regards to geography and length of season.
  4. The fruit and vegetables that U.S.  consumers enjoy come from both domestic and international sources.

The Produce Traceability Initiative (PTI) was never conceived as a total, industry wide solution to total network traceability. But it was a serious attempt, by a cross section of industry representation, to begin to bridge a number of these gaps. A PTI Steering Committee was established, with a membership of roughly 50 individuals, who represented a wide cross section of the produce industry supply chain.  The scope of the PTI Steering Committee was to create an environment for network traceability to the pallet and case level.  Two standards were established:

  1. A common nomenclature for identification consisting of a G-Tin coupled with a lot number.
  2. A set of standards for the case label itself.

While these two things may appear simple, they are both, in fact, complex to adopt on a system wide basis. Recognizing this, the PTI Steering Committee established a 7 year timeline for broad industry implementation. There were several “milestones” established by which companies could target their respective companies to keep in sync with the industry effort. All of the members of the PTI Steering Committee agreed to commit to the PTI guidelines as written. Tragically, many of those same companies have not followed through on those commitments.  In my view, two things have impacted those commitments.

  1. The general economy came under some serious challenges 24 months ago. Retail and Food Service sales came under pressure which significantly impacted those respective companies. The expense of implementing PTI standards was now being viewed in the context of a broader financial challenge in these companies. Other priorities were now influencing PTI implementation.
  2. The second issue is not widely considered – the relative calm which exists in public perception with regards to food safety in fresh fruits and vegetables.

When the PTI Steering Committee was formed and the whole issue of system wide traceability was being tackled, the produce industry had been “rocked” by the spinach crisis. Individuals were dying due to consumption of fresh spinach. This spotlight on the produce industry highlighted many of the inherent challenges associated with a product recall in produce. There was also a concern about a potential “regulatory knee jerk reaction” as a result of a public demand for government action. But as the health care debate consumed congressional and administration attention and other products (i.e. peanut butter) took center stage in the food safety debate, the focus on traceability took on a lessened degree of urgency.

While these things may, or may not, have influenced decision processes within the membership of the PTI Steering Committee, it still remains true that the principal supporters of PTI have not followed through on their commitments to adopt those guidelines. As a result, this has become less important to their respective suppliers. Challenges of both cost and process are being rehashed as though they had never been identified. And the Retail focus on local purchases are calling into question whether or not they will insist on the same PTI standards for small, local growers that they will impose on the large, commercial growers.  The sponsoring trade associations are now revisiting the guidelines in an attempt to appease the critics. What may come of this is anyone’s guess, but it seems clear to me that there will be a delay in many of the milestone dates that had been established.  And a delay will do nothing to eliminate the two main challenges: cost and process. One, of two things, needs to happen.

  1. The members of the PTI Steering Committee, who so boldly proclaimed to the industry their commitment to PTI need to, in fact, follow through on what they said they were going to do.
  2. In the absence of an industry solution, the government will need to legislate and regulate traceability standards.

In its current state, the industry will continue to debate, ad nauseum, even the basic elements of system wide traceability, which is common nomenclature (G-Tins). The industry will continue to rely on individual company systems and processes to deal with recalls and trace back situations. And again, it must be pointed out that the industry does, indeed, have systems in place to accomplish a degree of effective product recall. But the glaring opportunities in this area still remain.  Another significant food safety outbreak in fresh fruits and vegetables will, once again, bring this into the spotlight. And it’s not a matter of IF, but a matter of WHEN.

(Bruce Peterson is President of Peterson Insights, Inc., a highly recognized produce industry leader, Bruce is active with the UFFVA and PMA. He has served as President-CEO of Naturipe Farms, LLC and as Senior Vice President & General Merchandise Manager of Perishables for Wal-Mart.)