Where’d That Come From?

Decreasing risk with the Produce Traceability Initiative

Published in the January 2014 Issue Published online: Jan 17, 2014 Ashley Boucher
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The mission of the Produce Traceability Initiative (PTI) is simple: to help your business fight risk. Headlines with words like “disease,” “recall” and “potato” can spread as quickly as the pathogen in question—and shielding your company’s brand from that kind of attention and accusation involves a proactive, preventive set of measures.

The evolution of the PTI is impressive and lengthy, but its first two years are especially interesting. In 2006, the tragic spinach crisis left the produce industry desperately looking for security. The length of time it took investigators to locate the source of the outbreak caused the entire category to be recalled, rocking consumer confidence. In 2007, industry members asked associations to develop a more effective system for whole chain traceability, resulting in the Produce Traceability Initiative led by the Produce Marketing Association (PMA), Canadian Produce Marketing Association (CPMA), United Fresh Produce Association and later GS1 US. That same year, a foodborne illness stressed the need for more accurate traceback investigations when tomatoes were inaccurately condemned for an outbreak for which the commodity wasn’t responsible.

The PTI’s vision is to achieve standardized, electronic traceability across the supply chain. Each handler in the supply chain likely already has its own internal traceability system, but the initiative’s solution calls for adapting those systems to track two common pieces of information on every case of produce as the case moves through each link in the supply chain—external traceability.


What are the current traceability requirements?

All companies are required by the Bioterrorism Act of 2002 to have an internal process of record-keeping: one up and one down traceability. There are not specific guidelines on how the records are maintained. As it stands, tracebacks involve mounds of paperwork and interpretations of each company’s unique definition of where and to whom products were shipped. We know that each party of the supply chain names the same case of product as something different and the result is a full end-to-end trace that can take weeks, or even longer.


What does PTI suggest?

Essentially, the program promotes a common identifier throughout the entire supply chain. Unified language will encourage improvements in quality, risk management and operational efficiencies. In addition, the Produce Traceability Initiative has suggested guidelines that include the electronic storage of records. These efforts will also help government agencies like the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to maneuver more quickly when investigating recalls, allowing the industry to get back to work as soon as possible.


Who does this affect?

All members of the supply chain will benefit from this program. In addition to the PTI being the main driver of reducing the economic impact of a recall, growers, packers and shippers can leverage their PTI investment to enhance or complement their current in-house food safety program. They can also use the barcoded labels on cases and pallets to increase operational efficiencies as well as gaining compliance with customers’ requests. An effective traceability program will also work to protect sales by allowing for quick verification that products are not associated with the source of an outbreak.

Early adopters of the program have reported positive results, including the reduction of quality claims and more accurate shipping. One grower began to communicate his onsite labeling to a central system via cellular, allowing for real-time visibility of what was being packed. This reduced daily over/under selling. Additionally, real-time tracking from the fields to coolers helped prioritize loads based on when the product was picked, rather than what arrived at the facility first.


What steps should I take now?

Traceability requirements are not complex and can be accomplished with just a few steps. The important thing to realize is that being proactive and initiating the program before your customer demands it is best for business.

If you’re a grower, your current food safety can be complemented by labeling cases and pallets with a barcode at the time of packing. That barcode should include the global trade identification number (GTIN) and batch number and can replace the manual tracking of who, how many and when.


Who can help me?

When a steering committee of 48 volunteer companies got together in 2007 to launch the PTI, creating the resources needed to make the requirements work for growers, packers and shippers became a top priority. The website producetraceability.org is a central resource that houses best practices, checklists, case studies and calculators to help accomplish implementation. PMA’s website, www.pma.com, has a collection of webinars, podcasts and tutorials to answer your questions. 


Each case of produce will have two pieces of information:

• A Global Trade Item Number (GTIN), which will identify who the “manufacturer” is (the owner of the brand that appears on the case)

• A lot number specifically identifying the lot from which that produce came

This information will appear in both human-readable form and machine-readable GS1 barcode. Once each handler of the product is given these two pieces of information, they can search their own internal traceability systems to retrieve the necessary information about the path of that case, one step forward and one step back.