NEW YORK — Thirty-four companies from throughout the produce supply chain last week endorsed a new plan to implement a common standard for produce traceability by the end of 2012. Developed by the Produce Traceability Initiative — a program administered by the Produce Marketing Association, the United Fresh Produce Association and the Canadian Produce Marketing Association — the plan will involve adopting a standardized system of case bar-coding for all produce sold in the United States, allowing product to be tracked throughout the distribution chain.
“The new plan is achievable by companies large and small across the entire supply chain, works with companies' existing information management systems, and supports public health goals as well as provides industry benefits,” PTI Steering Committee chair and Food Lion chief operating officer Cathy Green said in a prepared statement. “Implementing this initiative across the industry will require a multi-year transition effort, but is achievable.”
In addition to Food Lion, retailer endorsees included Wal-Mart Stores, Kroger Co., Safeway, Supervalu, H.E. Butt Grocery Co., Wegmans Food Markets and Schnuck Markets.
The program builds on companies' existing internal traceability systems, where information such as “ship to,” “deliver to” and purchase order details are already recorded in the normal course of business.
By adopting existing international standards developed by the nonprofit GS1 organization, the initiative's goal is to achieve external traceability by standardizing the use of two critical pieces of traceability information: a Global Trade Identification Number and a lot number. This information will be labeled on each case in human-readable form, as well as in a machine-readable bar code that each member of the supply chain can scan and maintain in its computer records as the products travel from farm to retail.
PTI identified a seven-step timeline that the produce industry will follow in order to meet the goal by the end of 2012.
“By first quarter 2009, brand owners (i.e., the owner of the brand that appears on the product in the case) will (1) obtain GS1-issued company prefixes required to create GTINs, and (2) assign 14-digit GTINs to every case configuration they pack. They will then (3) provide those GTINs to their buyers by third quarter 2009, so that buyers can input this data into their information management systems. By third quarter 2010, brand owners will begin placing the GTIN and lot number on case labels in (4) human-readable form and (5) machine-readable barcodes. Each subsequent handler of the case will be able to scan and store the GTIN and lot number on (6) inbound cases in 2011, and on (7) outbound cases in 2012.”
To help the industry implement these plans, PMA, United Fresh and CPMA plan industry outreach and education programs, including the establishment of a single website to host information and tools, as well as ongoing workshops and seminars at industry conferences; Webinars; online courses; and audio and video recordings.
PMA and United Fresh have said they will also confer with U.S. regulators, legislators and consumer groups to address the pressure that the industry has been receiving to improve its traceability capabilities in the wake of recent foodborne illness outbreaks.
“We already have a great story to tell about how we saw a need and moved to address it ourselves, voluntarily, without government involvement,” said Green. “And there will be plenty of help, so that we can all get to our goal together, to finish that story with a great ending.”