While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration should issue a proposal on food traceability by Oct. 7, Gary Fleming said he believes the document likely will validate the industry’s work on the Produce Traceability Initiative.

“Our sense, so far, is that it is not going to contradict the PTI at all,” said Fleming, vice president of industry technology and standards for the Newark,-Del.-based Produce Marketing Association.

The Produce Traceability Initiative, a joint effort of PMA, the Ottawa-based Canadian Produce Marketing Association and the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association, has set a 2012 deadline for voluntary industry adaption of the case-level electronic traceability.

The industry’s work and the government’s interest in traceability are in no small measure related to foodborne illness outbreaks linked to produce in recent years, including the E. coli outbreak linked to spinach in 2006 and the salmonella outbreak linked to peppers and tomatoes (although no definitive link to tomatoes was established) in 2008.

Particularly in the 2008 Salmonella Saintpaul outbreak, federal officials said their efforts to trace implicated produce to its source were slowed by industry practices.

In July, President Obama’s Food Safety Working Group said the Obama administration plans to build a new national traceback and response system. The system includes clearer industry guidance, a new unified incident command system, and improved use of technology to deliver individual food safety alerts to consumers.

In particular, President Obama’s food safety group promised that within three months — by Oct. 7 — the agency would issue draft guidance on steps the food industry can take to establish product tracing systems “to improve our national capacity for detecting the origins of foodborne illness.”

Fleming said Sept. 25 that nearly every piece of food safety legislation being considered by Congress has some component of electronic traceability mandate already.

That fact, combined with the federal mandate for “one step up and one step down” traceability already found in the 2002 Bioterrorism Act, should make the government’s guidance dovetail with the industry’s initiative.

“In essence what they are doing is mandating what the PTI does,” Fleming said.

Fleming said federal officials will likely go through a series of steps that will lead them to the exact same conclusions that the organizers of PTI came to two years ago.

The government will find, he said, that use of bar-code technology makes sense for traceability solutions. What’s more, he said FDA should find advantages in the use of Global Trade Identification Numbers endorsed by PTI.

“They will come to the exact same conclusions that the PTI came to two years ago,”

 Fleming said he is convinced the draft government guidance won’t include any reference to item-level traceability.

“The only (people) that looks at anything inside of the case are the ones who packs the case and the one who opens the case and that leaves out a lot of players that touched the case,” he said. “Item-level will be helpful down the road, but it will not address whole chain traceability because not everyone looks at the time,” he said.

The PTI timeline calls for produce brand owners to provide their Global Trade Identification Numbers to their buyers by the third quarter of 2009. The next major deadline — milestones four and five in the process — is October 2010, by which time packers are responsible for encoding the GTIN in a bar code and also showing the same information in human readable form on every case of produce.

 “There are no really big hardware and software implications about the first three milestones but the fourth milestone — during the third quarter of next year — is where the biggest amount of impact will begin,” Fleming said.  That is when brand owners will begin putting labels on every case of produce and on pallets.

“Companies are already starting to  meet with various vendors we are just seeing the beginning of those pilots,” he said.

PTI at Fresh Summit

Fleming said traceability is a focus at the PMA’s Fresh Summit in Anaheim, Calif. A workshop on traceability was scheduled for Oct. 2, in addition to the Traceability Learn-ing Center on the show floor for Oct. 3-5.

Fleming said he plans to discuss best practices at the Fresh Summit workshop, providing some “how to” context to the “what to do” and “when to do” represented by the PTI timelines.

“The biggest message I am going to have is what PTI can do and how it can minimize costs,” he said. “If we are going to make some investments to accommodate whole chain traceability, and then let’s minimize the amount of additional investment we have to make,” he said.

More information about PTI and the timeline can be found at http://www.producetraceability.org/.