Implementation of whole-chain traceability continues to move forward throughout the supply chain. Requirements for both internal and external visibility — from grower to retailer — are being driven by the industry-backed Produce Traceability Initiative and the Food and Drug Administration’s Food Safety Modernization Act.

Given the ongoing string of produce-related outbreaks of foodborne illness, it’s clear that growers, packers, and shippers must adapt to the new traceability standards and use technology to help improve response effectiveness and consumer confidence.

Naturally, there are very real costs associated with traceability. These include technology and software costs, training on the changes to your processes and ongoing operating costs. When analyzed solely from the standpoint of regulatory compliance, these costs become a significant burden with no perceived return on investment.

There are, however, potential business benefits associated with traceability implementation, which extend well beyond food safety and regulatory compliance.

Proven traceability technologies provide increased visibility and accuracy within an operation. This helps improve operating efficiencies and reduce expenses. Traceability systems provide on-demand access to real-time data — valuable information that can be used to make better decisions more quickly.

In essence, traceability is an investment in process improvement that can offer a very real payback. Internal efficiencies are gained that improve overall operations.

Here are some examples of how traceability can enhance visibility and accuracy within internal operations:

1. Improved operational visibility:

Harvest and packing processes are visible in real-time. Management can electronically monitor packing progress, allowing them to optimize labor and other resources. Sales can see the status of special orders and make accurate commitments to customers based on what is available to ship that day.

Cut-to-cool cycle times are accurately measured. Research shows cut-to-cool cycle time is a key determinant of shelf-life for fresh produce. With traceability systems, cooler and product managers know the real-time status of the harvest — when product left the field and when it arrived at the processing or storage facility.

Without traceability systems, gathering this information requires multiple phone calls to harvest and packing managers. These interruptions reduce efficiency and can result in delayed or unreliable information.

2. Reduced errors and labor costs:

Cooler receipt is automated. Automating the receipt of product at the cooler reduces check-in time. Trucks arriving from the field can unload faster, reducing bottlenecks. In the packing shed, pallets are identified and moved to cold storage or onto a truck for shipment more quickly. Additionally, automated receipt improves accuracy by reducing errors associated with manual data entry.

Source lot validation and directed picking. Directed picking of bulk product prevents costly source lot commingling. Forklift drivers are directed to the right location for each pack run. The source lot for the bulk product is validated before loading onto the forklift. This not only saves time and reduces costs associated with handling the wrong product, but also ensures the integrity of the traceability process.

3. Traceability information improves analysis and reporting:

Electronic traceability systems efficiently collect, track, and report valuable operational details. Patterns of operational performance, based on actual data over time, become visible. This allows management to accurately identify areas of potential improvement within their operations as well as to measure the actual effect of changes.

In conclusion, whole-chain traceability should not be viewed solely as a business burden but also as an opportunity to gain practical business advantages. Growers, packers and shippers can effectively leverage proven traceability technologies to make their operations more efficient and drive costs down while ensuring the freshness and safety of their product.

Chris Davis is chief operating officer for RedLine Solutions, Santa Clara, Calif.