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The Produce Marketing Association is conducting a national search for a person to take over the position recently vacated by Gary Fleming, who was the association's Produce Traceability Initiative point person.

Mr. Fleming, who wore the title of vice president of industry technology and standards, spent his last day on the job Nov. 3 conducting a PTI workshop in Charlotte, NC. He resigned from PMA in mid-October to establish his own consulting firm.

"We're assigning a staff team to handle ongoing work and incoming queries while we conduct a search," said Julia Stewart, public relations director at PMA. "As of today, I'm awaiting [identification] of the interim staff team member(s)."

Ms. Stewart earlier said that while Mr. Fleming will be missed, there are many PMA_staff members who are familiar with PTI, and the work will continue at its current pace.

PTI is an industry wide effort, spearheaded by PMA, the United Fresh Produce Association and the Canadian Produce Marketing Association to provide supply chain wide adoption of electronic traceability in the produce industry by 2012. The deliberative timetable has been designed to allow all members of the distribution chain to be able to scan a barcode that will be placed on each case at the point of origin. The data included in the barcode will allow for electronic traceability at the case level.

PTI is a collaborative effort of the above named associations as well as of dozens of industry members who met for about one year to hammer out the specifics of the voluntary program. The effort was designed to both provide traceability and give the U.S. Food & Drug Administration a blueprint for any mandatory traceability program that is expected to be part of national food- safety legislation.

While both Congress and the FDA may devise a mandatory program that is substantially different than PTI, the proponents of the produce effort said that the FDA has been involved in the development of the program and the industry is fairly confident that it is moving down the right track.

Under the seven-step PTI action plan, all growers and shippers were expected to have completed the first three steps by Oct. 1. Those three steps involved obtaining and assigning 14-digit GTIN numbers to each product group that a shipper wants to designate, and to provide those numbers to the buying community. By Oct. 1, 2010, grower-shipper-packers need to encode that information in usable barcodes and provide matching "human- readable" data on each case.

Not until the fall of 2011 are retailers and all other receivers of product along the supply chain expected to complete their first step of the PTI implementation plan, which is to be able to read and store information on inbound cases.

By the fall of 2012, all handlers need to also be able to read and store information from the barcode on outbound cases. That step will complete the process and should provide chain wide traceability.

At the PMA's recent Fresh Summit, the association hosted a PTI information booth on the convention floor to answer questions and direct the industry to service providers that can help them implement the PTI plan.

Some shippers expressed to The Produce News that they were moving ahead with the implementation plan and were ready to provide receivers with their GTIN information.

"We have our numbers, but our customers are telling us they are not ready to take them from us yet," said a representative of one large California grower- shipper who asked not to be identified. "It's a bit disconcerting that they aren't moving any faster. We have already allocated a lot of resources, and we estimate that this is going to cost us $1 million per year. This is not going to work unless everyone along the supply chain gets involved, and we have our doubts."

Dan Vache, vice president of supply chain management for United Fresh and that association's point person for PTI, said that he believes the industry is moving forward on PTI as would be expected for any new technology. "There are always industry leaders, followers and a lot of people sitting on the sidelines, and that is the same thing that is happening with PTI," he said. "I do know personally of many retailers that are looking under the hood of PTI and trying to figure out how it is going to work."

Mr. Vache said that he talked with many different people during the PMA show and is satisfied that progress is being made at all levels. He theorized that there might be a disconnect between the buyers for any chainstore and the work being done by its information technology people. Supermarkets have many different departments and traceability is a crossover concept. "And remember, the first two milestones had nothing to do with retail at all. It is only now [with the third milestone] that the buy side is actively engaged."

Ms. Stewart agreed with Mr. Vache's assessment. "Milestones one, two and three are very shipper oriented and internally focused. With those milestones, basically were saying, 'Let's get organized.' "

She said that now the work needs to take more of an industry wide path, and she believes that it is happening in a very timely manner.

"We are very satisfied that we are right where we should be," Ms. Stewart said. But she added that the "larger, better-resourced companies" are in a better financial position to tackle this issue, and so that is where the early effort would be expected. She quickly noted that "a truckload of resources is available on the PTI web site (producetraceability.org) for any company that wants to get involved."