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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 forward."

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 out."

The greatest obstacle to total industry participation in the Produce Traceability Initiative lies in education. There is a lack of technical knowhow and ability.

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 their expertise."

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 consumer sale."

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