Providing clarity to the status of the Produce Traceability Initiative and the industry’s uneven progress toward case-level traceability, roundtable discussions at the United Fresh Produce Association’s convention in Las Vegas figure to be a magnet for crowds.

“Those roundtables are going to bring in folks interested in hearing from the experts,” said Dan Vache, vice president of supply chain management for Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh and moderator of the discussions.

The discussions start at 1 p.m. on April 21 and April 22 on the expo show floor, Vache said.

Officials from GS1 US will attend. Lawrenceville, N.J.-based GS1 US operation is responsible for assigning Global Trade Item Numbers to produce suppliers.

GS1 US takes leading role in United Fresh roundtable
GS1 US takes leading role in United Fresh roundtable

Vache

The role of GS1 US was elevated at a PTI steering committee meeting this year.

“GS1 will be more active in helping industry education,” Vache said.  “They have always been part of the PTI, but quite honestly, we should have had more visibility with them.”

A spokesman for GS1 US could not be reached for comment.

PTI calls for electronic traceability by the end of 2012. Vache said top industry concerns about the process include cost of implementation, return on investment, engagement of the entire industry and the future effect of food safety legislation on federal traceability demands.

Roundtable participant Brendan Comito, chief operating officer for Capital City Fruit Co. Inc., Des Moines, Iowa, said his company has PTI milestone No. 3 finished for the Capital City’s own products. Yet he is waiting for GTINs from many of his suppliers.

“I sent a letter to 300 suppliers about two months ago, and we’re slowly getting numbers trickling in, but it is not nearly the response I had hoped for,” he said.

“The trick is what I do about these times where I have maybe 30 growers over the course of the year for one item code?” he said.

Comito said most large growers are trying to implement PTI, though he said some local growers now may not even want to think about it.

“Nobody is on pace with the milestones, but I think people are at least working pretty hard on the first three milestones,” he said.

The first three milestones — obtain a company-specific prefix, assign GTINs and provide them to buyers — were supposed to be completed by the end of 2009.

Future milestones — notably that of scanning inbound and outbound cases — will be even more challenging, he said.

In retrospect, Comito said the PTI steering committee might have benefitted from a broader base of knowledge about industry processes.

“The problem I see is that they put a bunch of produce people in the room and said ‘figure it out’ and it might have been more important to bring in experts on lean manufacturing (efficiency) and information technology people,” he said.

In fact, Comito said it might have been good to have a couple of people from the shipping docks involved to lend their insight.

One fear of PTI, Comito said, is that buyers may want their entire supply chain to use only a certain vendor for PTI.

“Then you get in a situation where you have to get three or four systems to support your customer base,” he said. “You would quadruple your investment and get nothing in return for it.”

Chris Davis, chief operating officer of Santa Clara, Calif.-based RedLine Solutions Inc., said there are different mindsets about moving forward with the initiative. Some operators are moving ahead, some are waiting to hear from customers before proceeding and others putting it off until the last possible minute.

“The ones I’m seeing delay aren’t delaying to get their act together, they are delaying because they don’t want it to happen,” Davis said.

Meeting the traceability milestones has been harder than anticipated, said roundtable panelist Lisa Strube, director of finance for Strube Celery & Vegetable Company, Chicago.

Strube said the company is receiving data from growers and shippers about their GTINs.

“Because we are a Primus-certified house as well, as we are getting the audit reports, we have started to request the GS1 numbers with that,” she said.

The sessions will be near the Traceability Demo Center on the show floor.