We are all going to be hearing a lot about traceability this year.

The Traceability Interoperability Summit is being held in Denver, Jan 21 and 22.  Sponsored by the Colorado Springs-based Traceability Institute LLC, it is even preceded by a one day traceability “boot camp” on Jan. 20th.

Last month, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) held a joint informational meeting on traceability, rolling out some research but as yet no additional mandates.  Will there be another shoe dropping, or perhaps a couple of boots?

Private industry’s Produce Traceability Initiative, demanded by retailers like Wal-Mart, Safeway, and Kroger, is being implemented and by late 2010 will require “human-readable” labels on cases of produce, which will include everything from country of origin down to the date picked from the fields.

All those outbreaks involving lettuce, tomatoes, spinach, cantaloupes and peppers just caused too much loss of consumer confidence for America’s retail establishments.  Big growers got the message and PTI was born.

When all those small and organic growers learned what was up, many were certain traceability was just another conspiracy to lock them out of the wholesale market.

One guy who started hearing that early was John Bailey, a land use attorney with a practice in California’s Salinas Valley, the Salad Bowl of America and Ground Zero for PTI.

With encroachment, water disputes and other such “hassles” facing those who own some of America’s most productive farmland, Bailey did a brisk business solving those legal problems.

Bailey was in the right place to hear from his $1 million to $2 million-a-year-growers–small by Salinas Valley standards–that PTI was going to be a hassle.

It did not make sense to small growers that they would have to invest thousands of dollars to code and trade their produce or be locked out the wholesale market that supplies Wal-Mart and other big retailers.

Bailey set about with designing a solution to the hassle problem, offering small growers a solution to traceability problems for a couple hundred bucks a year plus the cost of printing and paper for labels.

He did it through Top 10 Produce LLC, which used a kind of cooperative method for creating one GS 1 Data Bar coding system with the assigned numbers for its enlisted members to be totally up to snuff with PTI’s requirements and deadlines.

With the dawn of 2010, Bailey also rolled out “Top 10Fresh,” a directory with reviews of locally grown produce from coast-to-coast.  With almost 2,500 farms and ranches listed on “Top 10Fresh,” Bailey is on a mission to connect the grower with the consumer.

Once that happens, the day of us eating nameless, faceless fresh produce “commodities” will be over, and that should help make food safer, too.