The Produce Traceability Initiative is looking to move from neutral to drive by putting a team of key retailers and other supply chain representatives on a new tier of oversight — and is seeking industry participation.

The 33-member group, known as a leadership council, includes six retailers, a critical link in moving the voluntary initiative forward. Retailers that have agreed to appoint a representative on the council include Food Lion, Wegmans, Kroger, Wal-Mart and Supervalu, said Dan Vache, vice president of supply chain management for Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association.

“We want people to recognize these are thought leaders in the industry,” he said.

The group will replace the PTI steering committee.

PTI steering committee chair Cathy Green, president of Food Lion LLC, Salisbury, N.C., is expected to issue one more retailer an invitation to the council, Vache said.

The PTI, seeking case-level electronic traceability by the end of 2012, is administered by Ottawa-based Canadian Produce Marketing Association, the Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association, United Fresh and — new this summer — Lawrenceville, N.J.-based GS1 US.

Vache said a decision to delay interim PTI milestones earlier this year, along with the announcement of the leadership council, was prompted in part by a town hall-style meeting at the United Fresh convention in Las Vegas, where concern about retail buy-in to PTI was voiced.

“My feeling on this if we don’t get the major retailers behind this, then forget it,” he said.

Get involved

PTI also issued a call for industry volunteers for working groups.

Vache said the new leadership council may meet in mid-October just before the Produce Marketing Association convention in Orlando.

“I would hope there will be a lot of volunteers because it is an important issue,” said Joel Nelsen, president of California Citrus Mutual, Exeter, Calif.

Still, Nelsen said large grower-shippers may face a dilemma in working with retail customers on the issue.

“Are they there representing themselves or are they there representing an industry/commodity? That’s going to be a difficult issue.”

PTI is creating an association executive subcommittee, and Nelsen is interested in being a part of that. “I would argue that there are four association spots on the leadership council; I certainly would like to have one of those,” he said.

One consultant said the outreach was positive but said many questions remain.

“I guess it is progress after a year of little progress,” said Michael McCartney, managing principal with QLM Consulting, Sausalito, Calif.

McCartney suggested retailers may be motivated to move traceability to a higher priority after the massive egg recall in August.

However, he said cost estimates are needed for small, medium and large shippers to help the industry gauge how expensive PTI will be.

“The key to this is to establish traceability that is affordable, is open and is a one size fits approach,” he said. “When you move into only using GS1 type tools, you are moving into a very proprietary mode and a lot of details will have to be ironed out.”

Vache said that point about the GS1 platform has not been settled and will be addressed by a working group.

“We’re going to do what is best for the industry,” Vache said.

Meanwhile, he said the issue of PTI costs will be taken up by the working group.

Nelsen said he hoped GS1 involvement would help clarify and simplify PTI. “Hopefully (GS1) will take this back to square one and keep it simple to accomplish traceability,” he said.

However, McCartney said the inclusion of GS1 US as an administering group of PTI raises questions about future costs associated with traceability data synchronization on the GS1 US platform.

Working group details

The PTI news release said the four working groups will be organized under what is described as a new PTI leadership council.

The council includes six retailers, five foodservice operators and distributors, 14 produce suppliers, four wholesalers and four association presidents, the group also will be the liaison to the GS1 US Foodservice Standards Initiative.

That foodservice industry standardization initiative is on a similar traceability track to PTI, the release said.

Meanwhile, the PTI organizational chart listed on the group’s web site shows a nine-member executive committee that will consist of the four association presidents, one wholesaler or terminal market operator, one retailer, one food service operator and two grower-shippers.

“This new structure will establish the platform for every industry member to become more involved with the PTI initiative,” steering committee chairwoman  Green said in the release.

“We believe this structure will create a more inclusive process that will benefit PTI and the industry alike.”

One source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there are concerns remain among some in the distribution chain about the logistical challenges of PTI.

In particular, some retail distribution centers don’t believe PTI is a cost-effective solution if they don’t have the technology to capture the lot codes on cases of produce when they come in and leave the distribution center. To the extent that traceability systems would require case level handling, the source said it will be a challenge for some companies to commit to.

Another concern is the still unsettled final language of the food safety bill that may be signed into law later this year, the source said.

Julia Stewart, public relations director for PMA, said PTI will accommodate everyone who is interested in volunteering.

“The key message here is that the PTI is working hard to fulfill the promise we made earlier this year to be more transparent, more engaging and do more outreach and education,” she said.

Volunteers must be members of the PTI organizations, according to the release. Interested people were instructed to contact Marlo Bodinizzo of GS1 US at mbodinizzo@gs1us.org by Sept. 27.