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An efficient system of tracing and recalling fresh produce that may be contaminated is a long way off.That's the upshot of a recent study that simulated recalls of fresh produce in the distribution system. The test, overseen by the Produce Marketing Association and the Canadian Produce Marketing Association, concluded that although the mock recalls succeeded, there are far too many weak links to support

An efficient system of tracing and recalling fresh produce that may be contaminated is a long way off.

That's the upshot of a recent study that simulated recalls of fresh produce in the distribution system. The test, overseen by the Produce Marketing Association and the Canadian Produce Marketing Association, concluded that although the mock recalls succeeded, there are far too many weak links to support the kind of strong, system-wide traceability chain that will be needed.

There's cause for hope, however. Participants in the collaborative mock recall -- a grower-shipper, retailer and food-service distributor -- had the basic identification and tracking tools needed to accomplish the recalls. Their internal processes, many of which are slowly being adopted by progressive companies across the distribution chain, succeeded in flagging the product. Plus, the technology platforms needed to make tracing work, such as electronic data interchange, bar codes and even radio frequency identification are becoming institutionalized.

The problem, according to Gary Fleming, vice president of industry technology and standards at PMA, is that the mock recalls were hardly a model of efficiency. Because each participant used its own proprietary procedures and processes to identify and track product, the end result was the casting of a net that was far too large.

"A lot of companies in the produce distribution chain think they have the traceability problem solved because they can do it internally," Fleming says. "But once they get outside their own four walls, traceability breaks down because everyone does something different. They're fine until they have to start dealing with one up and one down in the supply chain."

PMA's recently released analysis of last year's pilot study noted that a lack of harmonization produced recalls that would have been extremely costly and unnecessarily disruptive in the real world. Salinas, Calif., grower-shipper New Star Fresh Foods LLC; Portland, Maine-based Hannaford Bros.; and Houston-based food-service distributor SYSCO participated in the pilot.

"The scope of the recalls frequently widened to include product that was not affected, and stores which would not have been involved," the report stated.

For example, one simulation of a "harvest-to-customer" recall resulted in a callback that could have been improved by 50% with better, more targeted recall capabilities. In a simulated "importer-to-retail" recall, six retail destinations were caught up in the dragnet. As it turned out, five could have been spared had a specific lot number been included in the traceability database in the retailer's distribution system.

From these experiences, the PMA report concluded that significant gaps exist in the real-world system for tracing produce.

"This appears to be an industry-wide issue, and the less automated firms seem particularly vulnerable at present," the executive summary noted. "But irrespective of technology, adopting standard data requirements and traceability processes across the produce supply chain will greatly enhance the industry's ability to trace and recall product.

Industry-wide inclusion of lot numbers on fixed-weight produce bearing supplier identification is just one of many practices that PMA said will help vastly improve produce traceability.

A working group made up of members representing all parties in the produce distribution, the CPMA/PMA Traceability Task Force has developed a list of 10 best practices for moving to enhanced produce traceability. The practices form a set of specific actions that parties in the distribution chain should implement to ensure that product can be both tracked downstream in the supply chain, and traced back upstream to its source.

The best practices, many highly esoteric, address specific data capture methods that can be implemented at the supplier facility, the distribution center and the store level. They involve such things as encoding lot numbers and Global Trade Item Numbers in standardized bar codes on packages; scanning supplier pallet data during the receiving process, and matching it to EDI-produced Advanced Supplier Notice information; and marking cases at the supplier level with human readable data, including supplier name, product description and lot number.

The test bolstered PMA's view that widespread adoption of the best practices is essential. Fleming said it showed a lack of harmonization in the ways participants tracked and traced product hampered external traceability, or the ability to trace between trading partners.

"The goal of the pilot study was to validate our best practices guidelines and simulate how they would be implemented," Fleming said. "It showed that existing systems are probably inefficient. It helped prove that if we don't institute these best practices, what will happen is that we won't be able to answer the basic question of where something came from. And that's a setup for ditching a lot of product. The best practices will help narrow the scope of any recall."

The summary report of the pilot noted that although the participating companies were leaders in their use of technology and approach to food safety, the mock recalls weren't as efficient as they could have been.

"Members of the supply chain took different approaches to the data collected and stored, and to tracking product internally," it said. "Product was received and then moved into the internal system without maintaining a data link to the supplier and to individual pallets or cases. This loss of identity meant the scope of recall was widened significantly."

The findings mirror those of a similar mock recall that was staged last year to gauge the quality of traceability of foods in Canada. The most significant finding of the produce component of the Can-Trace study was that traceability is hampered by lack of a standardized method of identifying products.

"The Can-Trace Produce Pilot showed that no common identifier is present throughout the entire supply chain," the PMA summary noted. "The primary recommendation resulting from that study was for industry-wide adoption of a consistent lot or batch identifier that aligns with the Global Trade Item Number."

CPMA and PMA are marshaling resources to develop the foundation for a better traceability program that can work across borders and even globally.

Improving traceback systems is a priority for those on the front lines, too. Hannaford Bros. could not be reached for comment on the study. However, the retailer has been aggressive in addressing the issue. Speaking at the CIES IT and Supply Chain Conference sponsored by CIES - Food Business Forum last October, the company's vice president of distribution, Gerry Greenleaf, said the chain is trying to be proactive.

Greenleaf said the company has been developing specifications for lot management and recordkeeping, robust recall processes and automated recordkeeping supported by automated shipment notification and RFID. He said traceability will be a consumer expectation, not a governmental mandate, and that retailers and suppliers will need to collaborate.

Given the vast numbers of suppliers and middlemen in the distribution chain, getting to a standardized format will be challenging, said Bruce Peterson, senior vice president and general merchandising manager of perishables for Wal-Mart Stores, Bentonville, Ark. Yet improving traceability is a top priority for Wal-Mart.

"The world we envision is one where we hold a tomato in one hand and push a button on a computer with the other and know where it was grown and when it was grown," Peterson said.

"Lots of hands touch the product, and how you get your arms around that is a challenge," he added. "We're whacking away at the problem one hurdle at a time. I'd like to say we're going to get this worked out, but it's not something that will be in place in six months."