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MONTEREY, CA -- The "plumbing" largely is in place to move forward with the broad initiative of produce traceability, according to Gary Fleming, the Produce Marketing Association's vice president of industry technology and standards.

Mr. Fleming addressed an audience of more than 150 attendees Jan. 13 at the Hyatt Regency Monterey Resort & Spa, here. The daylong PMA Fresh Connections conference focused on the industry wide Produce Traceability Initiative, with Mr. Fleming giving a four-part presentation on traceability, GS1 DataBar barcoding, radio-frequency identification and data synchronization.

The event featured an update on industry plans to achieve supply-chain wide electronic product traceability. Mr. Fleming serves as PMA's representative on the initiative and provided an update of the PTI action plan, which was announced to the industry in August after an eight-month development process by a supply-chain wide steering committee.

Mr. Fleming told the audience that PMA, the United Fresh Produce Association and the Canadian Produce Marketing Association are all working together on the PTI action plan and added that the U.S. Food & Drug Administration and Canadian government "are pressuring us for action." He said that the industry would be better off implementing standards as opposed to having government-authored standards imposed upon the industry.

Joining PMA and the others in their efforts on the PTI action plan are the National Restaurant Association, Food Marketing Institute, National Grocers Association, International Foodservice Distributors Association, Canadian Horticultural Council and the Canadian Council of Grocery Distributors. The PTI recommends that all companies involved in marketing produce within the U.S. market adopt this common standardized approach to identifying cases of produce.

Mr. Fleming said that PTI endorses case identification based on GS1 standards, which is a global standards organization with affiliates representing 145 countries worldwide and a membership in excess of 2 million. The GS1 system provides standard protocols that help identify trade items (products and services), logistic units, locations and more.

Mr. Fleming said that GS1 is "becoming the standard for produce around the world."

The PTI steering committee recommends that the produce industry universally adopt the use of the GS1 Global Trade Item Number at the case level, which is comparable to the Universal Product Code barcode used at the item level.

The GTIN would allow companies to reference the same item in all its business transactions without having to cross-reference these numbers. Both GTIN and UPC are managed by GS1. The upside of using GTIN identification numbers at the case level is that it would allow standardized interaction between differing internal coding systems unique to each company, thus improving produce supply chain traceability, Mr. Fleming said.

The first step is for companies to obtain a GS1-issued company prefix, which allows for unique identification of products from that company, Mr. Fleming said. This company prefix will then become part of all GTINs assigned to cases of produce from that firm. Companies should have their prefixes - handled by one short phone call -- completed in the first quarter of 2009.

The second step is for companies -- also referred to as "brand owners" -- to assign 14-digit GTIN numbers to all case designations. This should be completed by the third quarter of 2009.

The third step is for brand owners to provide their GTINs and corresponding data to their buyers and maintain the information.

The fourth step is for those packing product to provide human-readable information on each case. Companies are encouraged to have this completed by the third quarter of 2010, Mr. Fleming said.

The other steps in the process are encoding information in a barcode on each case (third quarter 2010), the ability to read and store information on inbound cases (to be completed in 2011) and the ability to read and store information on outbound cases (to be completed in 2012).

More than 40 companies representing a cross-section of buyers, distributors and grower-shippers already support the Produce Traceability Initiative timelines, Mr. Fleming said.

"Buyers want suppliers to do things one way" and vice versa, Mr. Fleming said. The GTIN standard is used in other supply chain technologies such as barcoding, RFID, GS1 DataBar and data synchronization, all topics that Mr. Fleming covered in his presentations in Monterey.

The floral industry also is moving toward GTIN usage, Mr. Fleming said. GS1 DataBar barcoding can allow for more coded information to be placed within a barcode, thus enabling buyers to get accurate ticket rings and a better handle on category management.

In his presentation on GS1 DataBar barcoding, Mr. Fleming said that the GS1 DataBar barcode is very similar to the linear UPC barcode but smaller in size. It has the capability to be used with a two-dimensional barcode called a "2d" composite component. Two-dimensional barcodes have the ability to store a significant amount of data but require a different reader than a traditional linear barcode reader.

GS1 DataBar barcoding is not in wide use at present for fresh produce. If a retailer's scanners cannot read it, cashiers can refer to Price Look-Up stickers. Mr. Fleming said that the GS1 DataBar will be important for retailers, wholesalers and grower-shippers to identify and track bulk produce at the item level.

Regarding RFID, Mr. Fleming said that there remain problems to work out. Water poses a problem because it absorbs energy, thus weakening signals. Metal also poses problems because it interferes with signals.

RFID is "pretty powerful stuff," Mr. Fleming said. "We just have to work through a few problems."

The cost of operation -- most specifically the cost of RFID tags -- has yet to drop to the level conducive to mass industry acceptance.

"Once the problems [with RFID] are solved, then it's just a matter of cost," Mr. Fleming said.

Mikelea Hailstone, e-business manager for Salinas-based Tanimura & Antle Inc., was in attendance at the Monterey conference. She said that until usage reaches critical mass in RFID, companies "won't reap a lot of benefit on it."

In his data synchronization presentation, Mr. Fleming said that data synchronization can prevent transmission and capture of bad data but also can ensure that item information in the buyer's database is the same as item information in the seller's database.