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WASHINGTON  Ten buyers sent a message last month that they are expecting their produce suppliers to meet the first three milestones in the Produce Traceability Initiative and be able to electronically track produce throughout the supply chain by 2012.

Three produce trade associations  the Canadian Produce Marketing Association, the Produce Marketing Association and the United Fresh Produce Association  joined forces in 2007 to move the industry toward a standardized, whole-supply-chain system. Last year, a steering committee of 40 companies hammered out a schedule of milestones that would facilitate the 2012 goal.

Now nine retailers and a leading produce distributor are signaling the seriousness of their commitment to PTI. H.E. Butt Grocery Co., Walmart, Food Lion, Supervalu, Wegmans, Sysco, Schnucks, Safeway and Kroger, along with distributor Pro*Act, sent a letter Sept. 2 reminding companies to stay on track with the PTI.

"As key trading partners within the produce industry, our expectation is that you, our valued suppliers, adhere to the milestones and timelines of the PTI," according to the Sept. 2 letter that was sent to produce suppliers. We ourselves are committed to these same timelines and milestones and are not able to achieve them without your conformance and active participation.

Companies should meet the first two milestones by the first quarter of 2009: Obtain a GS1-issued company prefix and assign a Global Trade Item Number to case configurations. The third milestone of communicating a 14-digit GTIN to trading partners should be completed by the third quarter of 2009.

It is unclear how many produce suppliers are adhering to the PTI schedule, according to Dan Vach?, United's vice president of supply chain management. The first two milestones are strictly internal business decisions, he said at the end of September, while for the third milestone, suppliers need to start exchanging their 14-digit systems with trading partners.

But what is clear is that buyers want the protection. Those suppliers that do not conform and provide the necessary information required by the milestones of the PTI will ultimately put us and our consumers at risk, said the letter.

The 10 buyers did acknowledge the costs involved in setting up the new system. We understand the costs involved in this, as we too have changes and major investments to make, they said. However, this underscores the importance of the need to do this now rather than waiting for the government to tell us how to do this tomorrow.

In July, the House of Representatives passed a bill that would require the Food & Drug Administration to implement a food-tracking system capable of identifying, within two business days, every company that grows, produces, manufacturers, processes, packs, transports, stores or sells foods. While the Senate has yet to act on the bill, the FDA is already laying the foundation for a new traceability mandate for all foods.

Produce companies are watching the new legislation. We believe Congress is not likely to prescribe one thing over another, said Gary Fleming, PMAs vice president of industry technology and standards. But it is likely to require electronic traceability and mirror the tenets of the PTI, he said.

There are shippers already [using electronic traceability systems] who were involved in recalls, added Mr. Vach?.

Companies are finding out the benefits of a whole-chain traceability system; they know how many cases are potentially implicated and who they were sold to, he said. Other companies are discovering that if they had whole-chain traceability, recalls would result in products pulled from 25 stores rather than 800 stores.

Theres no reason to wait, said Mr. Fleming, adding that the 10 key buyers represent a large market for produce companies. In the end, produce companies will need to decide whether two different inventories  one for the 10 large buyers and one for everyone else  make sense.