NEWARK, Del. — Twenty-seven companies, including major food retailers, food-service entities and produce growers, have joined the Produce Traceability Initiative, a new industry program aimed at driving broad adoption of long-overlooked traceability standards and practices throughout the produce supply chain, according to the Produce Marketing Association here.
The companies include Wal-Mart Stores, Kroger Co., Food Lion, Wegmans Food Markets, Sysco, U.S. Foodservice, C.H. Robinson, Maturipe and Tanimura & Antle, Gary Fleming, PMA's vice president, industry technology and standards, told SN.
In addition to the 27 participating companies, four others are expected to join, he said. Eight trade associations will also participate, and government officials will be invited as observers. The PMA is scheduled to release an announcement about the participants this week.
Cathy Green, chief operating officer of Food Lion, Salisbury, N.C., will chair the initiative, Fleming said. The first meeting of the initiative's participants will be held Jan. 9 in Atlanta.
Sponsored by the PMA, the Canadian Produce Marketing Association and the United Fresh Produce Association, the initiative is one example of how food retailers and their suppliers are collaborating on methods, often technology-based, to improve the safety of the food supply.
The spate of food recalls, ranging from the spinach E. coli outbreak in the fall of 2006 to the recall of almost 850,000 pounds of beef patties by Cargill Meat Solutions last month, is stoking new interest in standards and technologies that precisely trace the source of contaminated product as well as improve the inspection processes that might prevent contamination from occurring.
“The purpose of the Traceability Initiative is to move the industry into action to incorporate standards and truly have whole-chain traceability for produce,” said Fleming. The program, which is drawing involvement from the upper ranks of the participating companies, including presidents and chief executive officers, will include “timelines” and “some accountability” to motivate companies to adopt traceability standards, he said.
“If [retailers and suppliers] are serious about food safety, they have to make an investment in the entire supply chain,” added Fleming. “We can't do business the way we did prior to the spinach incident last September. We lost way too much money. The entire industry loses whenever there's another recall in produce.”
However, Fleming did not elaborate on exactly what actions the participating companies would recommend for themselves and the industry. “On the details of change, we will need a consensus,” he said. But he doesn't expect the group to stray from current standards and best practices that the PMA and the CPMA have developed.
Fleming observed that the industry has been locked in a chicken-and-egg debate between suppliers and retailers who each say they would embrace traceability standards if the other group did. The PMA, the CPMA and the United Fresh Produce Association finally declared the impasse to be “ridiculous,” he said. “If we're going to build trust with consumers we've got to do something instead of talking.”
The Traceability Initiative will be modeled on the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, which the California produce industry put into effect this year to ensure that growers of leafy greens meet certain agricultural standards. “We hope that the Produce Traceability Initiative will produce the accountability that's evident in the Leafy Greens Agreement,” said Fleming.
Lack of Bar Codes
Though most retailers and suppliers claim to be able to trace produce, surveys conducted by the PMA and the CPA earlier this year point out the lack of adoption of traceability measures. Only 2% of surveyed suppliers apply bar-coded Global Trade Item Numbers (GTINs) to produce cases, as packaged goods suppliers typically do. “That makes it a big problem when you try to reference an item [in a recall],” Fleming said. “You can't do it with just a description.”
Among surveyed retailers, only 41% are able to scan the few bar codes on produce cases, and a smaller percentage scan and store the codes, said Fleming. “Most retailers put their own bar codes on cases for internal purposes, but unless that code is associated with a supplier code, you lose trace-back.” This is why GS1 industry-standard codes, rather than proprietary codes, are required to facilitate traceability, he noted.
In particular, three key pieces of information are not being scanned and stored: GTINs, lot numbers (specifying specific field or production runs) and pack or harvest dates. “You give a grower or shipper those three fields, and they can track [a case of produce] back to its source,” said Fleming.
The federal Bioterrorism Act requires retailers to be able to trace a product back one step in the supply chain. Most retailers are able to do so with CPG products, which come with bar codes at the item level as well as the case and pallet level. Scanning and storing case- and pallet-level bar codes would enable one-step traceability along the produce supply chain.
However, one-step traceability, Fleming observed, only works if each trading partner in the supply chain participates. “If a supplier uses standard codes, then the rest of the marketplace has to read and store them,” he said. “If they don't, no matter how good the supplier, you can't trace back.” Moreover, he said, no matter how sophisticated a piece of traceability technology is, unless all trading partners are capturing and storing data, the system will not be effective.
Another issue for the produce industry is the emergence of the GS1 DataBar, a bar code that can be applied to individual loose produce items. In addition to enabling scanning of loose produce, the DataBar would allow traceability to the individual item level. But the DataBar is a good two years away from mainstream acceptance.
In the meantime, Fleming said the Traceability Initiative will discuss whether to include the GS1 DataBar in its traceability recommendations or just use current case- and pallet-level standards. “I don't know where we will land,” he said.
Perhaps the biggest internal change that retailers will need to make to support produce traceability is to convert their produce ordering, inventory and invoicing systems so they are like the systems used for CPG items, which incorporate bar codes at the pallet, case and item level, Fleming said.