IN THE TRENCHES: Understanding benefits of traceability is the first step in implementing program
by Ron Pelger | April 18, 2010
Envision these hypothetical scenarios:
* Cattle from a ranch are feeding in a field and drinking water from a small
stream near a farm growing vegetables. The water is seeping bacteria from
the cattle elimination through the soil into the farm vicinity.
* An employee in a packingshed sneezes openly several times while handling
peppers on a conveyor line. The worker then continues packing them into
boxes for shipping.
* Several pallets of precut salad have been left on a receiving dock long
enough to break the cold chain. After being selected and delivered to a store,
the same product is left in the back room for another length of time.
* Heads of leaf lettuce fall from the refrigerated case in a supermarket
produce department and onto the floor. A well-meaning customer picks them
up and places them back on the display for sale.
Which of these four incidents could possibly induce a devastating and deadly
foodborne outbreak? Obviously, all are instigators of food contamination.
The produce industry is constantly being faced with food-safety challenges.
Whenever I witness events like those described above, it sends a chill up my
spine just imagining the entire industry being disrupted and the particular
product item sent into hiatus for a long period of time. This is another reason
the industry as a whole needs to put a sophisticated program in place. It
should be able to pinpoint a problem instantly in order to avoid needlessly
dumping an entire crop, resulting in millions of dollars in losses.
Byron Bellows, retail produce director for Colemans Food Centre in Corner
Brook, NF, said, "I do believe an in-depth traceability program will benefit all
retailers in the future, and there has to be a lot of effort put forth into
developing this program. Just imagine having an issue with a particular item
and you need to identify its exact origin. With this program, you could trace
back to a particular farm and pinpoint perhaps a pest in that very spot. I
don't think we're there yet, but it's certainly heading in the right direction.
This is a very comprehensive and detailed program but a huge benefit going
Scott Danner, chief operating officer of Liberty Fruit Co. Inc. in Kansas City,
KS, added, "Liberty Fruit has for 15 years tracked all of our produce by lot.
This means that we track where the produce came from and where it went.
Hence, we track one up and one down. The industry has had this system in
place for years. The main concern with PTI is cost implementation. For us
alone, the additional cost to implement PTI is roughly 25 cents per case.
Another challenge the industry is realizing with PTI is the ability to track the
amount of different numbers and the process of scanning each case in and
The greatest obstacle to total industry participation in the Produce
Traceability Initiative lies in education. There is a lack of technical knowhow
Helmut Lelli, an agronomist and the program development manager for
Clifford Produce in Ruthven, ON, said, "Growers and shippers perceive the
traceability initiative as another cost, except that it is a significant
opportunity. The problem is that someone like me who has the total
experience in understanding the system has not really had a platform to show
how to use it. The technology being used for traceability runs parallel to the
critical hazard points in the food-safety protocols. For example, shrink from
seed to final delivery is in excess of 30 percent, and that is money left on the
table. Growers and shippers have a lot coming at them in the way of all the
technological programs and software. Let's face it, digital technology is not
Mr. Lelli continued, "For generations, farmers have lived and learned on the
land. They have a broad understanding of growing, farm equipment, land
sustainability and genetics. However, there are very few farmers and
distributors that have worked in outside industries to learn and appreciate
business-management tools that have been well tested and proven over
time, and that can be brought back to our industry from the seed to the final
Tom Stenzel, president and chief executive officer of the United Fresh
Produce Association in Washington, DC, told me, "The industry is making
good strides toward whole-chain traceability, connecting the dots between
companies in the chain. This is where standardized data for case coding will
really improve efficiencies in tracking and is at the core of the Produce
Traceability Initiative. But this isn't easy or cheap, so we've got to make sure
we keep looking for the most cost-effective and efficient solutions to
enhance our track and trace programs. United is hosting numerous meetings
at this year's convention in the Traceability Demo Center so we can listen to
the concerns and solutions that companies are finding in working to meet
this challenging goal."
To sum it up, the key to a successful whole industry chain traceability
program is in understanding it exclusively. Start learning all you can by
getting involved at the Traceability Demo Center during United Fresh 2010.
(Ron Pelger is the owner of RONPROCON, a consulting firm for the produce
industry, and a member of the FreshXperts consortium of produce
professionals. He can be reached by phone at 775/853-7056 or by e-mail at