(April 3, 2:30 p.m.) The Produce Traceability Initiative reached its first milestones at the end of March.

The initiative, a joint effort of the Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association, the Ottawa-based Canadian Produce Marketing Association and the Washington D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association, is laid out in seven steps that should be reached by 2012. The initiative’s first steps were due for completion at the end of the first quarter, ending in March.

“Some companies have been able to get it done, some are still working on it, and some are just coming to the table,” said Julia Stewart, PMA public relations director.

The first milestone required companies to obtain company-specific prefix numbers from whichever GS1 organization represents each producer’s country.

In the U.S., that organization is GS1 U.S., Lawrenceville, N.J.

GS1 is the standards organization that issues company-specific prefixes, which are then used in combination with case configuration-specific suffixes to form a Global Trade Item Number.

The GS1 company prefixes are needed by growers who wish to maintain their own brands, packers that change the composition of the original case or product and rebrand, shippers who maintain their own brands and buyers that require private-label product.

The second milestone requires companies to use those GS1 prefixes and attach reference numbers to make individual GTINs for each case configuration they produce.

The traceability initiative’s Web site, www.producetraceability.org, provides advice for assigning these codes, as well as step-by-step instructions for meeting the initiative’s deadlines.

The GTIN is always a 14-digit number that includes the company prefix, the reference number assigned by the company prefix owner that identifies the case being numbered, an “indicator” number (always a 1 for produce items) and a check digit that uses an algorithm to make sure the number was entered correctly. With a GTIN, companies have case-level traceability.

The next milestone for endorsers of the voluntary program is giving their GTINs to their buyers by the end of the third quarter. Buyers can then synchronize their suppliers’ GTINs with their systems.

“Milestone three is when we’d like to start seeing some coalescence,” Stewart said. “Milestones one and two were largely internal, but milestone three is the point where you need to start communicating with the world about what you’re doing.”

Stewart said shippers should be able to include the required GTIN and lot number data on all case-level packaging without upgrading their current packing line system.

“One beautiful thing about PIT is its flexibility,” she said. “It doesn’t require anyone to scrap their internal computing or information systems. There’s no proprietary software. They just need to be able to augment their existing system.”

After that, traceability initiative participants have the next year to work on their own packaging and labeling to include both human-readable and machine-readable GTIN and lot number information on each case, due by the end of the third quarter of 2010.

In 2011, handlers of the case after it leaves its origin should be reading and storing the information from each case received, and in 2012, everyone should be storing outbound information.

The traceability initiative is up to 57 endorsers listed on its Web site, up from 40 in mid-February.

“There’s certainly an incredible amount of interest, a lot of traffic to the Web site and lots of phone calls,” Stewart said. “It’s not anything anyone is going to have to figure out on their own. We’ll have step-by-step instructions for each of the milestones.”

United Fresh is hosting a seminar, “Traceability 2012: Getting From Here to There,” at its upcoming annual trade show April 21-24 in Las Vegas, and Stewart said PMA has scheduled an education program at Fresh Summit Oct. 2-5 in Anaheim, Calif.

Each of the three Produce Traceability organizations has staff members representing the initiative. They are: Gary Fleming, vice president of industry technology and standards for PMA; Jane Proctor, vice president of policy and issue management for CPMA; and Dan Vache, vice president of supply chain management for United Fresh.