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ORLANDO, FL -- Two-dozen heavy-hitters representing all facets of the produce industry gathered April 7 in a conference room at the Ritz-Carlton Grande Lakes, here, to tap into the knowledge base of Gary Fleming, a leading authority on produce traceability.

Mr. Fleming's presentation was part of an ongoing series of continuing- education seminars hosted across North America by N2N University. The "university" is the offspring of N2N Global, a Longwood, FL-based company that provides business solutions to the produce industry, including well- known software like Food Safety Manager and the Knowledge Integrated Software Suite.

Representatives from Duda Farm Fresh Foods, Darden Restaurants, Kroger, East Coast Growers & Packers and others listened intently as Mr. Fleming spoke about the Produce Traceability Initiative, an industry effort to provide chainwide electronic traceability across the produce spectrum by 2012.

Mr. Fleming, who was formerly vice president of industry technology and standards at the Produce Marketing Association and was the point man on the PTI for that organization, now heads his own firm, the Symbolon Group, which consults on the same topic.

"This is a difficult process. In yesterday's world, we didn't care that much. It's not yesterday's world," Mr. Fleming told the diverse crowd. "Suppliers say, 'We don't mind doing this, but could you all do it the same way? Can you all use the same standards? Please?' How nice would it be if we all played nicely in the sandbox together and all did this the same way? That's the goal. Functionally, what are we trying to accomplish? This is where the rubber meets the road."

Mr. Fleming spent eight hours going over the finer points of PTI compliance, including industry milestones that lead up to full implementation in 2012. Participants also got lunch and breakfast. And, with sponsorship from IBM and Lowry Computer Products, none of it cost attendees a dime.

Jim Thomas, vice president of supply management for Darden, called the seminar "a great opportunity. We have a number of people directly engaged in the PTI process, and this is a way of increasing our exposure and creating cross-functional support. It's been very informative, very educational, and a lot of points have been clarified."

Jake Raburn of Plant City, FL-based strawberry grower Hinton Farms, said, "This was an opportunity for our company to learn more about PTI, where it is, where it's going. Coming here was a no-brainer."

Tim Jernigan of Seald Sweet International came "basically to communicate with colleagues, peers and the industry - networking, really." What he heard was "basically a reaffirmation of the direction we're going and the milestones we're looking to achieve." Was it worth his time? "One thousand percent," he said.

Doug Lawrence, eastern area coordinator of produce procurement for Kroger, was in attendance "mainly to see what the university had to offer and to see if there was anything new regarding PTI I hadn't learned - and to find out what our vendors might be struggling with as to PTI. I'm here to gain a better understanding of what we can possibly do to help the growing-shipping community follow standards and achieve the PTI milestones."

N2N University is the brainchild of N2N GloBal Chairman Angela Paymard and Chief Executive Officer Ernesto Nardone.

"The PTI is being trivialized to some degree in the industry, but to consumers, it's the 2,100-pound gorilla in the room," Ms. Paymard said. "When the hammer comes down, this has to be applied properly."

"There's so much misinformation about the PTI," Mr. Nardone added. "Our goal is to put top experts in settings where the industry can interact with them and get the answers and information they need. These [attendees] are potential customers, but our goal is to provide value for the industry. N2N University came from customer requests for continuing information. We need some type of mechanism to continue adding value."

Upcoming N2N sessions are scheduled for Yakima, WA (May 19), Nogales, AZ (August) and Los Angeles (November).

Other dates and seminar topics will be added to the schedule regularly. For updates or to register for upcoming university sessions, go to www.n2nglobal.com.