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Representatives of the three major trade associations that co-launched the Produce Traceability Initiative announced that the steering committee has reaffirmed its commitment to whole chain traceability in the produce industry by 2012 but has relaxed some of the interim timelines to achieve the goal.

Produce Marketing Association President Bryan Silbermann, United Fresh Produce Association President Tom Stenzel and Canadian Produce Marketing Association President Danny Dempster presented the redefined PTI in a 40- minute teleconference May 25 with the produce industry trade press.

While they did affirm the concept of using Global Trade Item Numbers to attain traceability and also praised the tremendous progress that has already been achieved, they said they wanted to address the concerns of many others who have questioned the complexity of PTI as well as the industry's commitment.

Responding to industry concerns that there has not been buy-in at all levels - - most significantly the retail sector -- the association representatives said that the PTI committee has begun efforts to fully engage those segments of the industry to achieve "widespread and uniform support across the retail and foodservice industry, with consistent application."

The representatives made it clear that they realize support from both the retail and foodservice buying communities is critical if the goal of point-to- point traceability at the case level is to be achieved.

They said they were in discussions with market leaders in both groups to strengthen the commitment at the buyer level; however they did recognize that this is a voluntary program and that neither the associations nor the PTI steering committee has any power to mandate compliance.

Ultimately, it will be a marketplace-driven decision, said Mr. Stenzel. In the retooled PTI timetable, the steering committee acknowledged that there is no reason that grower-shippers need to achieve case labeling one full year before receivers are asked to record or capture this information. Hence, those two milestones have been combined, and the new guideline for their concurrent adoption is sometime in 2011.

Previously, milestones 4 and 5 called for packers to "show human-readable information on cases" and "encode information in a barcode" by the third quarter of 2010. Receivers, on the other hand, were not required to be able to read and store that information on inbound cases (milestone 6) until sometime in 2011. Those three milestones have now been harmonized at the later date.

The three association executives, however, reiterated that there has been no relaxation of the final milestone, which completes the link and actually creates whole-chain traceability. Milestone 7 calls for all handlers of the produce to be able to "read and store information on outbound cases" to be completed sometime in 2012.

It is this step that has caused the most consternation and resulted in some pushback at the retail end.

Currently, many large retailers use an automated "voice pick" system to load outbound trucks to their individual stores. Loaders operating forklifts are directed by headset to the specific products that need to be loaded for each store. Those who are versed in these systems have revealed that efficiencies would be lost if the extra step of scanning each outbound carton was added to the process.

However, solution providers in the traceability industry are working on solving this issue by developing algorithms that will allow the forklift driver to register the specific outbound carton through his voice via a specific code on the box. That code can then be matched with the inbound scan to provide the necessary information.

These systems are in development and have not been publicly tested yet, but that is also part of the newly tweaked PTI effort.

During the teleconference, Messrs. Silbermann and Stenzel revealed that pilot projects will be initiated at all points of distribution to show how the PTI system can be implemented.

For example, many field-pack operations have not yet moved forward on PTI because they are not sure how labeling in the field can work. A statement released by the three trade associations reads, "We recommend that a series of pilot projects be conducted in a variety of different commodity sectors, incorporating all segments of the supply chain from grower through retailer and restaurant. These pilot programs should address specific challenges identified by the different sectors, include the use of different technologies and solution providers in order to evaluate multiple processes, and be transparent to all industry members as we share in lessons learned."

These pilot projects will be developed under the auspices of the PTI, which will engage commodity and regional associations as well as individual member companies in implementing pilots to address specific concerns applicable to their sectors of the industry.

The committee also changed the language of the initiative, adopting a more flexible and conciliatory tone.

The association representatives admitted that the effort is voluntary and that the milestones should not have been written as "must comply" dates but rather as "target goals" to achieve.

"We recognize that meeting implementation milestones will vary by company and that ultimate adoption is a marketplace decision not an association directive," said the statement.