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ANAHEIM, CA -- A panel of experts discussed the industry-wide Produce Traceability Initiative and made one thing crystal clear: Having a traceability plan is not an option, it is a requirement.

"There are a lot of challenges" to implementing a traceability program, said Mike O'Brien, Schnuck Markets' vice president of produce and floral, who was on the panel at an Oct. 2 workshop held during the Produce Marketing Association's Fresh Summit International Convention and Exposition, here. "But first you have to get your head straight. This is something that is going to happen. It is not an 'if'."

Concurring was Gary Fleming, vice president of industry technology and standards for the association, who has taken a lead role in the development of PTI, which began as a multi-company and multi-association effort to establish a voluntary traceability program for the produce industry.

At the core of the effort was complying with relatively new federal laws that require each company to be able to trace every product it sells "one up and one down," Mr. Fleming said. That means companies need to maintain records concerning where they bought the product and where they sold it. He said that a March survey by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services revealed that compliance by the produce industry has "failed miserably."

Food-safety legislation being debated in Congress has a mandatory traceability component, said Mr. Fleming, who revealed that the U.S. Food & Drug Administration was expected to come out with its own proposal Oct. 7 that would also have a mandatory component.

Mr. Fleming said that he has been told that the FDA proposal is compatible with PTI, and that was the plan all along.

In many early interviews, Mr. Fleming said that PTI was developed as somewhat of a blueprint for mandatory regulations that were expected to come down the pike.

During the PMA workshop, he justified the effort and the steps that have been painstakingly developed to make PTI a workable and effective program. He said that the designers of PTI used processes that were already in effect to create whole-chain traceability.

"We used existing standards, existing technology, existing information and existing systems," Mr. Fleming said.

In a nutshell, PTI relies on barcode technology, internal lot numbers, and company and product identification codes to create a sticker that can go on every carton and be traced at every link of the distribution channel. Each time the bar code is scanned when the product reaches another stop along its journey to the consumer, that information is stored and is completely retrievable.

Panelists, including Mr. O'Brien of Schnuck's and Tom Casas, vice president of information technology and mechanization for Salinas, CA-based Tanimura & Antle, agreed that PTI can be an expensive process.

The Schnuck's executive said that it will be very expensive for retailers. Scanning each carton of product as it arrives at the firm's distribution centers is the easy part of the process. "For incoming, we have a plan, but going to our stores - that's a big problem," he said.

Mr. Casas admitted that getting company resources committed for PTI compliance was difficult, especially after T&A was somewhat the poster child for RFID, which was a costly program that has not developed as first envisioned.

But all the speakers said that the rewards of a fully developed PTI program would be great. Mr. O'Brien said that being able to trace everything is the major benefit, but the "real answer is that we are going to gain the confidence of our customers."

Mr. Casas said that full traceability would enable a company to narrow the scope of a recall, which will be a dramatic payback when such a necessity occurs. But he said that implementing the program will also help companies improve their processes and gives potential for other benefits.

"We are going to have a barcode [loaded with information] floating around our system," Mr. Casas said. "We are currently trying to figure out how we are going to utilize that information."

Under the PTI timetable, produce firms should have already applied for and received 14-digit company and product GTIN numbers that identify their individual SKUs, and these numbers should have been provided to their buyers. By the fall of 2010, human-readable information about the point of origin of each product must be on every case, and barcodes with this information must also be in use. By the fall of 2011, each company is expected to be able to read and store barcode information on each inbound case of product. By the following fall, a system that enables each company to read and store all information on outbound cases should be in place.

These timetables are the core of the voluntary PTI program but are subject to change based on what mandatory traceability proposals might be put forth by Congress or regulators.