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Traceability Still a Hot Topic

I just arrived in Anaheim yesterday for the Produce Marketing Association’s annual Fresh Summit convention. My flight from the East Coast arrived in time for me to register for the show and check out an afternoon session on the Produce Traceability Initiative, featuring Jim Corby, vice president of produce merchandising for Food Lion; Gary Fleming, v.p. of industry technology and standards for PMA; Mike O’Brien, v.p. of produce and floral for Schnuck Markets; and Tom Casas, v.p. of IT and mechanization for Tanimura and Antle.

PTI has been an ongoing project with PMA, the United Fresh Produce Association, the Canadian Produce Marketing Association, and dozens of retailer, foodservice and supplier companies for over two years. The goal is to have a standardized electronic traceability program in place for the entire produce supply chain by 2012. And, the hope is that this program will lead to faster and more narrowly defined product recalls when contamination is detected or foodborne illness outbreaks occur.

Fleming led the discussion with a brief presentation where he basically established that the implementation of the program is inevitable. The recalls, illness outbreaks and contamination scares of the past several years have made food safety and traceability a hot topic in Washington, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, along with other federal agencies and Congress, are all looking for ways to strengthen the system. The FDA will release initial guidance on traceability for the produce industry next week, and it isn’t expected to differ much from the goals that PTI has been working toward for the past two years.

O’Brien added that Schnucks—like many other retailers—is viewing PTI as a template for traceability that could eventually be applied to all perishables products.

During the Q&A portion of the session, several attendees expressed concern about the cost of implementation. One noted that his company had invested a lot of money in RFID technology, only to watch as the technology never gained the widespread use in the industry that its proponents had said it would.

But, as the panelists noted, things are different this time around. The government is making new laws and enforcing existing ones on this issue now. And, faster traceback can help the industry avert problems like last year’s salmonella outbreak, which the FDA incorrectly blamed on tomatoes for several weeks last summer, before eventually tracing the problem back to a pepper farm.