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MONTEREY, CA — Traceback capability is nothing new to the produce industry. It is a capability many companies have had internally for a long time, according to panelists participating in a July 31 workshop on the Produce Traceability Initiative, held here during the Produce Marketing Association's Foodservice Conference & Exposition.

The problem, according to the panelists, is that the in-house systems currently in place in different companies at different levels throughout the supply chain are not compatible, making traceback of a product from one end of the supply chain to the other difficult and time-consuming. That, they stated, is the main reason that an industrywide standard for traceability is needed.

While much of the session dealt with the technical aspects of developing and implementing an electronic traceability system that would permit rapid tracing of a carton of produce from the store or restaurant level back to the farm, field and date of harvest — with much of the focus on large operations — there was also discussion of whether participation in PTI is viable for smaller companies.

"I would say that as an industry we are very conscientious," said panelist Brenda Lloyd, director of equipment distribution and systems for Unified Foodservice Purchasing Cooperative LLC, the supply chain manager for Yum! Brands Inc. “But I will tell you, in the public eye, we are not getting credit for that” because when a crisis occurs, “we look like we can’t trace our product, even though we can.” A standardized electronic system utilizing bar codes “will allow us to do this more quickly.”

When someone gets sick, Ms. Lloyd said, the public perception is, “We’re the bad guy. We don’t care. We’re cheap. We don’t want to spend the money.” But if “we can do these things faster and we can lay down electronic records, I think we can get past some of that. Hopefully, a better traceability system will help us to get credit for doing what we have been doing.”

Tom Casas, vice president of information technology for Tanimura & Antle Inc. in Salinas, CA, commented that most distribution centers today “don’t know where the product goes to once it leaves the DC.” And if a full product recall is necessary, “you’re out of luck.”

There have been times, Mr. Casas said, when an internal test at T&A has indicated “that there was a problem” with some product “and we need to get that product back to avoid a public recall. We have done a product recovery, and we got every single box back from the lot and date we were concerned with.” But “in our case, we were very fortunate” that in that instance, the product had not gone “beyond a DC of our buyer.” Had it gone “from the DC to a store, we would have had a full product recall, because chances are our buyer wouldn’t have known which store it went to.”

“We have heard from the [U.S. Food & Drug Administration] that although within the four walls of every organization that handles produce up and down the supply chain they have pretty good systems, what takes so long to do a trace forward or a traceback” is difficulty in identifying product that has been “transferred between organizations,” said Ed Treacy, vice president of supply chain efficiencies for PMA. That is because different organizations use different item numbers to refer to the same item. “It takes so long because they are speaking different languages.” Using standardized PTI labels with a GTIN and lot number “captured and stored electronically” all the way through the supply chain will solve that, he said.

“The goal is to do a full-system traceback within 24 hours. Our current systems, because we are all speaking different languages, do not accommodate that,” Mr. Treacy said.

A member of the audience, who represented a mid-sized company, said that he has been “looking at bar code scanning end to end,” and it appeared that it could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to become compliant. How, he wondered, can smaller farms and producers afford to comply? “It does seem skewed to large organizations that have huge volumes and can afford it.”

Mr. Treacy replied that the PTI working groups are working to “come up with a solution” for small producers with small volumes who only ship to a small number of customer. “There are [affordable] solutions available,” he said. “For under $1,000, [small producers] can be PTI compliant. We are not asking [them] to put in conveyors with in-line scanners.”

One challenge of the PTI working groups, Mr. Treacy said, is “to debunk those myths” that PTI compliance is unaffordable for small producers.