(Jan. 18) Coming away from their first meeting with broad consensus on a strategy to proceed, the steering committee of the Produce Traceability Initative will seek more input from produce companies and other associations before setting a timeline for adoption of GS1 traceability standards, industry sources report.

“There was a strong sense of commitment and a sense of urgency,” said Tom Stenzel, president of the United Fresh Produce Association, Washington, D.C. “Not only do we know what direction we want to head, but a real conviction that now’s the time and let’s get going.”

In part seeking to answer what federal food safety officials say is a liability for the industry in food safety illness outbreaks, the initiative was launched in October 2007 by the Newark, Del-based Produce Marketing Association, the Ottawa-based Canadian Produce Marketing Association and United Fresh.

A steering committee of representatives from more than 30 companies from across the produce supply chain attended the first meeting, held Jan. 9 in Atlanta, Ga., according to a joint news release from the three associations.

The steering committee reached consensus quickly when they were informed about the differences between internal and external traceability systems, said Gary Fleming, vice president of industry technology and standards for PMA.

The lack of compatibility between various industry internal traceability systems has led to problems with traceback efforts when produce has been implicated in foodborne illness outbreaks.

A common system would narrow recalls of implicated product, he said.

There were four points of agreement relative to industrywide traceability by the steering committee, according to the release.

First, the GS1 produce traceability standard developed by the international standards organization GS1 should be widely adopted as the produce industry standard.

The committee agreed on the need for a formal industry timeline. The news release said that steering committee participants agreed to evaluate what would be required to fully implement GS1 standards in their own companies and then report back to the steering committee on recommended implementation timelines.

The group also agreed to consider ways in which companies could show their support for adoption of the traceability guidelines.

Finally, the steering committee said traceability standards should be adopted at the case level initially, though companies are encouraged to move toward item-level coding, when possible.

The release said the steering committee will meet next in February or March to form subcommittees that will address specific elements such as setting a timeline for industry adoption.

Stenzel said implementing systems for industry wide traceability will be a multi-year effort, likening the effort to the past adoption of standardized PLU codes at retail.

The first meeting was chaired by Cathy Green, chief operating officer of Salisbury, N.C.-based Food Lion LLC, and facilitated by Steve Lutz, executive vice president of the West Dundee, Ill,-based Perishables Group.