“Traceability is Coming . . . Is Your Company Ready?”

Although a bit foreboding, the tagline for the Produce Traceability Initiative (PTI) is completely serious. PTI, a brainchild of the United Fresh Produce Association (UFPA) and the Produce Marketing Association, is a comprehensive program to standardize produce industry traceability practices throughout the entire supply chain. Not only will it improve food safety, its champions say, but it will make produce companies more profitable.

fresh-produce3-featured.jpgPTI was largely the topic of discussion yesterday at the Produce Industry Townhall Luncheon jointly hosted by the United Fresh Produce Association and Costco in Issaquah, WA. The luncheon, attended by a range of produce industry insiders, sought to explain relevant traceability issues, including practical implementation and the impact pending food safety legislation will have on the supply chain.

Although existing federal regulation requires produce companies to keep a trail of accounting between buyers and sellers, it is unclear whether these regulations are adhered to. In March 2009, a watchdog agency tried to trace 40 items from retail stores to the farm where they were grown, but could do so for only 5. In the same month, a Wall Street Journal survey of facilities covered by the regulations indicated that 60 percent were not keeping proper records. As a result, the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, which is pending in the Senate, calls for a more comprehensive, stricter traceability system. Its counterpart bill was passed by the House last fall. The PTI, in some respects, is the produce industry’s preemptive response.    

“The industry must prepare for the greatest overhaul in 70 yrs,” said Dan Vaché, Vice President of Supply Chain Management at UFPA, at the luncheon. “Traceability is coming, whether companies want it or not.”

Instead of waiting for legislation to pass through Congress, the UFPA embarked on an ambitious campaign in 2008 to bring standardized traceability to 54 produce organizations. The goal, said Vaché, is to build an electronic traceback system of better transparency and common framework by 2012, soliciting the FDA as a consultant throughout the process. 

“We’ve spent a lot of time with the FDA–townhall meetings, policy discussions in Washington–and the Produce Traceability Initiative is what we came up with,” said Vaché. “We want to look down the road and eventually see this as an investment.”

A program like PTI, however, is a tough sell as an investment. The standardized systems approach, which will extend overseas to places like Mexico and the EU, will require a multi-year transition effort, and the immediate costs–implementation and processing, software, hardware, etc.–are substantial. Despite the obstacles, the United Fresh Produce Association is steadfast in its stance. 

“Implementing these recommendations will require business process changes for all companies in the supply chain, with costs borne by all sectors,” said Jeff Oberman, Vice President of Membership at UFPA. “Some of these changes and costs may be significant, depending on each company’s readiness to adapt. Yet, association leaders believe this is a critical step forward to enhance total supply chain traceability to better serve our customers, to expedite tracebacks and recalls, and more narrowly isolate potential recalls or other problems when they do occur.”