Today, in a market that continues going towards a wide-scale integration of a universal food and produce traceability system, PTI (produce traceability initiative), now in its fourth year of existence, has established several milestones (seven milestones to be precise) to mark its progress of implementation. The final milestone is to read and store information on all outbound cases, which is essentially whole-chain traceability. The final milestone was due to be met in 2012, which insiders say now is unlikely industry wide. However, progress is moving forward and some of the largest retail chains will likely meet the final milestone this year, which no doubt will impact many in the industry.
The produce traceability initiative, a call to action
As the potential for fresh and fresh-processed produce to cause foodborne illness became increasingly evident, one of the industry responses was to seek a uniform and harmonized mechanism to effectively minimize the acute and chronic burden of recalls and to accelerate the effort to get to a common distribution, processing and supply point. Having this in mind, the industry took upon itself a series of actions to help guard against and better react to future outbreaks. One of the primary steps in this mobilization of the industry was the development of the Produce Traceability Initiative (PTI). This voluntary effort is designed to help the industry maximize its ability to keep track of and quickly trace back products in the supply chain from the field to retail level.
Narrowing the focus of a voluntary product recall to a single supplier and avoiding commodity-wide consumer advisories from public health agencies was seen as a compelling argument for accepting the total supply-chain management milestones, very briefly, these milestones include the following:
1. Obtain a GS1-issued company prefix, which allows for the unique identification of products from that company. This unique prefix, held by the brand owner, is incorporated into all global trade identification number tags (GTINs) assigned to produce shipping case or carton units that are recognizable/readable throughout the supply chain. Repackers, depending on specifics of commingling and other parameters, need to obtain their own unique GS-1 prefix.
2. Brand owners assign specific 14-digit GTIN numbers to all of their product shipping-unit configurations based on the combination of the assigned prefix and a reference number. The expectation is that the reference number assignments follow a uniform strategy and logic across the industry for better consistency in communication.
3. Brand owners provide the specific GTINs and corresponding data to buyers for information recognition at the receiver location.
4. All of those packing product should provide bar code and human-readable information specifying the GTIN and lot number on every case of produce shipped.
One appealing aspect of improving internal traceability has been the recognition that data capture and analysis using manual bar code reading or automated identification systems, such as radio frequency identification (RFID) labels, is capable of significantly improving efficiencies and becoming a driver for improving unit operations. Tracking lot-associated data over time from site history, seed lot, all crop inputs, seasonal weather fluctuations, maturity and other factors may lead to the identification of patterns that affect quality, profitability and safety. Currently, data-rich internal traceability is being explored most intensely in the postharvest handling phases to capture the specific timing of key transfers and movements from harvest to cooling to staging for shipment. Linking this data to similar information from shipping docks to a food service or retail distribution center may be instrumental in localizing problem routes, carriers or receiver situations that result in avoidable losses. Not all parties are enthusiastic about the prospect of being able to isolate the cause of product compromises and cold-chain deficiencies.
The industry has come a long way with the help of solution providers being inventive and creative and helping drive the cost/investment down. Some are on target to complete the milestones by the end of 2012 (such as an SAP certified agro-business solution). The issue faced by the retail/wholesale segment has been challenging as they discover the need for upgrades to software and hardware.
An all-in-one agriculture management solution masterfully integrates and complies with the use of GS1 traceability standards for standardized product information, case level tracking, electronic recordkeeping, fulfilling the needs of the growers of a farm-to-fork tracking in minutes, not days, helping the growers to achieve full traceability and earn the highest levels of confidence in the safety of the products, enhancing and maintaining the confidence of consumers and government, supporting commitment to food safety.
Produce Traceability Initiative Progressing Toward All Milestones
A recent survey to gauge produce industry members’ adoption of the Produce Traceability Initiative’s (PTI) seven milestones indicates companies are making widespread progress. PTI is made up of a diverse group of 228 companies representing all produce industry sectors and a broad array of sizes responded to invitations to complete the survey, led by four categories: growers, packers/re-packers, shippers, and distributors. Demand-side respondents, comprising distributors, retailers, foodservice operators, and wholesalers or terminal markets, constituted 23 percent of the respondents.
Among the highlights of the survey, which was open to all produce companies, regardless of whether they have been active in PTI activities, found that 84 percent of responding suppliers are communicating GS1 Global Trade Item Numbers (GTINs) to receivers, while 77 percent of all brand owners said that they have assigned GTINs to some or all of their produce cases. Meanwhile, 88 percent of receivers report they are receiving cases with incoming GTINs, and 75 percent of receiver’s report they are reading or planning on reading data on some or all inbound cases. Receivers lag suppliers on implementations, but are making headway, with 43 percent of receivers reporting they are totally or partially equipped for reading inbound PTI-recommended data, and 40 percent of receivers storing all or some data on inbound cases.
Relatively few companies declared an unwillingness to participate in the initiative, with only 7 percent of brand owners saying they do not plan to meet the entry-level milestones. According to these, what is the message from PTI´S 34 member leadership council that governs the group? “Don’t wait, begin implementing PTI now.”
Still a work in progress, but don’t let the ship sail without you
The responsibility for the safety of fresh produce does not reside with one sector of the supply chain, but extends from field to fork and beyond to the responsible and sensible behavior of consumers. Rapidly developing traceability initiatives that include putting source-tracking codes in the hands of consumers at point of sale or making them accessible by entering human-readable codes found on item labels into a website are remarkable developments. The degree of transparency and intimate data-sharing is already transforming major players and mid-size early adopters.
In various grower and shipper meetings, industry insiders lament the painful process of conversion to a more uniform and pervasive system of external traceability. It is painful in that it alters not just long-standing practices but truly a culture and way of life. However, the greatest predictions of gloom relate to the impact on the bottom line. An often-heard phrase, “I only see my costs, I don’t see my benefits,” is reflected in adversarial attitudes toward implementing food safety documentation, record keeping and the audit process. Though lagging behind by years, an equally common observation by growers and packers has been that maturing into a comprehensive food safety program has resulted in substantial gains in quality and has reduced both losses and adjustments at destination. Pinpointing returns on investments in traceability and new systems to enhance regulatory trace-back is a challenge, but it is reasonable to anticipate tangible returns in efficiency from better internal tracking. The greatest identified benefits are not individual but will result from addressing and removing the current inefficiencies and barriers to outbreak investigations. Eliminating the chance of a nationwide consumer advisory against a commodity or region is strong incentive for the full supply chain to move to a new culture.