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LONGWOOD, FL — Anyone in the produce business who was still not convinced of the need for the Produce Traceability Initiative, a voluntary industry effort to ensure supply chain-wide traceability of every product from farm to fork by 2012, needed only look as far as Illinois in May and early June for a compelling argument for compliance.

An outbreak of rare and dangerous Salmonella Hvittingfoss at Illinois Subway restaurants sickened 103 people; at least 26 were hospitalized. The source of the outbreak is still unknown, but the Illinois Department of Public Health, which first reported the outbreak June 3, has not ruled out the possibility that Subway employees spread the illness, since a handful tested positive for the strain. But after the outbreak was reported, the chain discarded its supply of onions, green peppers, tomatoes and lettuce, pointing a finger at the usual suspect: produce.

Since the outbreaks occurred over a month-long period — May 5 to June 4 — it seems unlikely that any single perishable product in the store's supply chain could have been at fault. To the public, though, identifying the real culprit apparently is not at issue: As of July 6, sales at Illinois Subway stores were still down by one-third to one-half of normal.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention estimated that 76 million people in the United States — one in four — get sick every year from foodborne illnesses. Of those, 325,000 are hospitalized and 5,000 die. Last year alone, there were some 900 food product recalls. Contaminated poultry, leafy green vegetables, nuts and fruits are usually to blame.

Regardless of the ultimate source of any foodborne illness, in the public eye, the produce industry is "guilty by association," said Gary Fleming, lead author of the Produce Traceability Initiative during his tenure with the Newark, DE- based Produce Marketing Association and since late 2009 head of the Symbolon Group LLC, a Denver-based consultancy that specializes in PTI compliance. The PTI is a joint effort of the Canadian Produce Marketing Association, the Produce Marketing Association and the United Fresh Produce Association.

The Salmonella Hvittingfoss outbreak shows once again that “the only way this is going to work efficiently is chain-wide,” Mr. Fleming said. “No one has come up with a better solution that will work across the supply chain.”

Still, much of the industry lags behind in complying with the incremental PTI milestones, Mr. Fleming and another industry expert, Angela Paymard, head of N2N Global, a traceability software solution firm, told The Produce News in a recent roundtable discussion at N2N’s Longwood, FL, headquarters. Some companies are simply behind schedule; others do not yet take the voluntary initiative seriously.

Mr. Fleming and Ms. Paymard both estimated that about half of the companies with which they come in contact are currently ready for full PTI compliance, about 20 percent are preparing, and about 30 percent are “on the fence,” in Mr. Fleming’s words.

Some in the produce industry resent shouldering the burden for the entire supply chain, especially since statistics suggest that relatively few foodborne incidents occur at the grower-shipper level. A study released earlier this year by the Alliance for Food & Farming in Watsonville, CA, showed that while 12.3 percent of all foodborne illness outbreaks from 1990 to 2007 were related to produce, just 2.2 percent were associated with the growing, packing, shipping or processing of produce. Of all produce-related incidents, 14 percent were related to improper handling at community events, 13 percent occurred in the home and a whopping 65 percent were traceable to restaurants.

Regardless of actual numbers, Mr. Fleming and Ms. Paymard said, grower- shippers are tarred with the same brush applied to more culpable segments of the industry. Both experts said that the industry cannot afford to dawdle. If voluntary compliance is not forthcoming, state and federal governmental agencies will certainly step in. And the public will ultimately render the final verdict. Consumers demanding safety will force buyers to do business only with companies that are PTI compliant.

“Washington has a rubber bat,” Mr. Fleming said. “The buyers have a wooden bat.”

The good news for grower-shippers is that the PTI, while appearing mazelike and impenetrable, is actually quite simple. “It’s not rocket science,” Mr. Fleming said. “But people make it out to be rocket science. The biggest problem the industry has is a lack of education and a lack of understanding. They don’t know. And people are afraid of what they don’t know. Once the light turns on, they’re like, 'This is not as bad as we thought.’“

Said Ms. Paymard, “At the end of the day, PTI is printers and labels. And most people have printers and labels.”

There are seven milestones to the PTI. The first three — obtaining a unique company prefix for barcode information, assigning Global Trade Item Numbers and providing GTIN information to buyers — were to be completed in 2009. The next three — showing human-readable information on cases, encoding unique identifying information in a barcode, and reading and storing information on cases of inbound product — are to be completed by the end of 2011. The last, reading and storing information on outbound cases, is to be completed by the end of 2012.

The milestones are a “logical progression to ensure accountability so we’re not sitting around the table having this same conversation in five years,” Mr. Fleming stated. “To the government, consumers and buyers, that’s not an acceptable option.”

“This all came about because of people being killed by eating bad food,” Ms. Paymard added.

Resistance to the PTI is rooted in “fear and greed,” she said, though “it’s the path of least resistance in terms of cost, and it’s standards-based.” Worries about cost of compliance are greatly inflated, she and Mr. Fleming concurred.

“If you’re a small company, you can put it on your credit card,” Mr. Fleming said. “There’s nothing insurmountable in this.”

Despite resistance, both experts said they expect the industry to meet the self-imposed 2012 deadline. “Every one of our clients says, ‘If my customer says I need to do this, I’m going to do it,’“ Ms. Paymard said. “This industry is more than willing to make a change as long as it’s fairly based.”

Mr. Fleming said that the industry consensus seems to be, “Provided that everybody does this the same way, we’re willing.” But the real question, Mr. Fleming said, is not whether PTI will be adopted, but how quickly. “The speed and critical mass will be determined by those holding the wooden bat,” he said.

“It’s not easy to turn a big ship, but we’re at the wheel, we’ve made that first turn,” Ms. Paymard said, adding that leadership from the three trade associations has done much to promote PTI acceptance. “They’ve done a great job; when your leadership is involved, that shows great commitment.”

Mr. Fleming said that even more focus is needed from the trade associations. “They need to step up and help us address this,” he said. “The leadership of this industry needs to continue to educate and inform and, basically, walk what you talk, and practice what you preach.”