Unlike its packaged-goods counterparts, organic as well as conventional produce has long suffered from the absence of a bar-coding and scanning mechanism, putting it at a disadvantage at many points in the supply chain.
One of those is ordering. Retailers use price lookup codes or internal stockkeeping unit numbers, coupled with their own descriptions, to order products. The current protocol requires suppliers to manually interpret the information in a highly inefficient process that opens the door to many mistakes. Initiatives like the Reduce Space Symbology bar code would alleviate these problems, but practical application of the program is still far off.
Help, though, is on the way from the Produce Marketing Association, Newark, Del., which is close to completing a new system, the Industry Product Database, designed to bring consistency to the produce ordering process.
In December, PMA plans to make the product attribute data associated with IPD available online, according to Gary Fleming, PMA's vice president, industry technology & standards. Third-party "host" companies -- which could be the retailers or suppliers themselves -- will be able to download the IPD database and begin hosting and synchronizing retailers' and suppliers' internal data.
Standard attributes have been developed for organic produce to distinguish whether an item has been organically grown, as well as to determine its post-harvest treatment, growing/shipping method and growing region. Other attributes cover such details as commodity, variety, dimensions, pack size and configuration, and spelling.
Supervalu, Minneapolis, which has participated in the IPD interoperability and steering committee, has been using a precursor to the IPD system since last December with its Northwest produce suppliers, said Greg Zwanziger, Supervalu's senior business consultant, IT business strategy. Supervalu's system is an automated catalog mapping system developed by Foodconnex, Auburn, Calif., to support the IPD initiative.
"We have been able to take the fresh produce category that has had little success in attaining supply chain efficiencies through EDI, and have integrated the supply chain past the level we have maintained with most of our consumer packaged goods suppliers," said Zwanziger. Once PMA releases the attribute standards for the IPD, "we will be able to leverage it through our existing FoodConnex trading platform."
Under the IPD system, retailers and suppliers furnish the host company with their specific item selections, using a wide range of standard attributes developed for the IPD database to identify products. "There's this painful exercise of putting in attributes and SKU numbers," said Fleming. "But retailers only have to do it once and it works for any supplier that uses the network."
Once their products are registered with a host vendor, a retailer would tell a supplier to contact its host to obtain information on all of the items it wants to purchase. The vendor's host then pulls the data from the retailer's host via a standard XML message and matches the information to the supplier's data. From then on, in any purchase order, "if a retailer wants item 1234, the supplier will know that based on its IPD finding, the retailer's item 1234 equals the supplier's item ABCD," said Fleming.
"The concepts of IPD allows for easy identification of organic products and accurate mapping of supplier catalogs to Supervalu's catalog," noted Zwanziger.
Growers won't need to worry about cross referencing retailers' items with their own because "the cross referencing has been done."
Retailers could use their host vendors to place orders as well, but the initial intent is to use the hosts just for initial data alignment with suppliers, Fleming said.
Foodconnex and iTradeNetwork, Livermore, Calif., have announced they will serve as hosts for the IPD database for retailers and manufacturers. Other host vendors have not been announced. Costs to hosts for downloading data have not yet been determined, said Fleming.