Companies pondering the expense of complying with the goals and timelines set forth by the Produce Traceability Initiative should consider the cost of not being involved down the road, said proponents of the initiative.

“The poor economy is clearly a negative to any progressive process that has costs attached to it,” said Steve Grinstead, president and chief executive officer of Pro*Act LLC, Monterey, Calif. “But companies that have a long-term focus should clearly understand that this is price of admission for the future, and that they must figure out a way to make it happen.”

The PTI, a joint effort of the Canadian Produce Marketing Association, the Produce Marketing Association and United Fresh Produce Association, set a timeline for companies to have obtained company prefix numbers and to have assigned Global Trade Item Numbers to all of their case configurations by the end of the first quarter.

Companies are to provide their GTINs to buyers by the end of the third quarter, and more milestones are scheduled in each of the next three years.

David Corsi, vice president of produce and floral operations for Wegmans Food Markets Inc., Rochester, N.Y., said the retailer is sending letters to suppliers informing them of the company’s support of the PTI and encouraging them to keep pace with the initiative’s timeline.

“If our suppliers cannot meet the third-quarter goal, we will offer a grace period if we have a clear understanding that there is intent to provide GTIN numbers in the near future,” Corsi said. “The major stumbling block has been the high cost of obtaining a company prefix from GS1.”

Corsi said PMA and United have addressed that issue with GS1.

Marketing director Roger Pepperl said Stemilt Growers Inc., Wenatchee, Wash., reached the first two milestones on time and is on pace for the next milestones.

While Stemilt is one of the nation’s largest apple, pear and cherry grower-shippers, Pepperl said there’s no reason small growers shouldn’t be able to meet the timelines as well.

“We don’t feel that it will squeeze out growers of any size,” he said. “Poor growers, regardless of what they grow, who can’t get their arms around paperwork and accountable practices will struggle.”

Wegmans and Pro*Act are two of about 60 companies publicly endorsing PTI, and hundreds of others have acquired their GS1 prefixes.

“Note the PTI’s endorsers to date come from across the supply chain and include leading buyers and sellers who understand how important and necessary this is,” said Gary Fleming, vice president of industry technology standards for Newark, Del.-based PMA.

Fleming said PTI’s action plan was developed in the first half of 2008 and launched in August before the economy took a serious downturn.

Like Grinstead, he said the industry can’t wait for the economy to improve.

“While none of us wants to take on extra costs right now, consider the costs of not doing it,” he said. “From a business efficiencies standpoint, there are savings to be had from moving to standardized, electronic product tracking. From a food safety standpoint, being able to help the public health community narrow the scope of a recall by more specifically identifying implicated product can reduce the costs of a foodborne illness outbreak, for the companies involved as well as those who are not.”

Fleming said Congress and consumers expect the industry to do more to safeguard product in light of recent outbreaks.

“It is in our best interest to improve our traceability capability ourselves, or Congress will generally mandate it as part of food safety legislation,” he said, “and regulators who don’t understand our business will then tell us how to do it. We’re working hard to educate Congress about the PTI, so that they will consider it as the traceability model of choice that it is.”

Fleming said companies already should be tracking information required by the PTI action plan in order to comply with the Bioterrorism Act. He also pointed out that the PTI Web site — — offers a step-by-step guide and best practices for meeting each milestone.

All three organizations — PMA, CPMA and United — are playing host to numerous PTI educational events.

“We are still very early in the process,” Fleming said. “This is the first year on a five-year-timeline. At this point, our attention is on creating awareness of the action plan, its goals and milestones. We have to walk before we can run.”

Tony DiMare, vice president of DiMare Co., Homestead, Fla., said the tomato grower-shipper supports the initiative.

His company was one of many hurt by last year’s Salmonella Saintpaul outbreak that initially was linked to tomatoes before Mexican jalapeno and serrano peppers were correctly identified as the sources.

“This should create improved unity in the industry related to traceability and recalls,” he said. “However, the system is only as good as its weakest link.”