(Sept. 24, 4:43 p.m.) Seeking to increase the speed and effectiveness of traceback investigations for fresh produce, the Food and Drug Administration has scheduled public meetings in October and November to hear answers from the fruit and vegetable industry and other stakeholders.

The Sept. 22 announcement of the public forums came as the produce industry was close to a timeline for adopting traceability standards.

The Produce Traceability Initiative — an effort launched in the fall of 2007 by the Produce Marketing Association, Newark, Del.; the United Fresh Produce Association, Washington, D.C.; and the Canadian Produce Marketing Association, Ottawa — was expected to reveal a timeline for adoption of traceability standards in late September, said Dave Gombas, senior vice president for food safety and technology for United Fresh.

The primary features of the Produce Traceability Initiative include the use of the GS1 identifier for companies combined with a company-specified item number, Gombas said Sept. 23. Together, those form the 14-digit Global Trade Item Number that can be human-readable or bar-coded, Gombas said. The industry system also will use a specific lot number on each case that can be read, captured and stored by fresh produce handlers.

“It will provide a lot of flexibility (for industry) to adopt their trace systems to a standard and still maintain that common language up and down the supply chain,” he said. “It is all consistent with what FDA is looking for.”

The first public FDA meeting about traceability is scheduled for Oct. 16 at FDA offices in College Park, Md. The second meeting is scheduled for Nov. 13 in Oakland, Calif.

In the notice about the meetings, the FDA said the agency intends the public meetings to “stimulate and focus a discussion about mechanisms to enhance produce tracing systems for fresh produce.” In addition, the FDA said it wants the meetings to improve its ability to more quickly trace back fresh produce associated with foodborne illness outbreaks.

The FDA also had several questions in the notice about particulars related to fresh produce.

“The questions are indicative of what the FDA is going to look at, about what they should do next,” Gombas said. “What I’m really looking forward to in these meetings is to hear from FDA on what specific issues do they see that might be unique to produce.”