Described earlier this year by The Washington Post as a “gold rush for technology firms,” the push for produce traceability got another boost with the recent E. coli crisis in Europe.

Almost immediately after the late-May outbreak in Germany, companies offering “traceback solutions” launched a barrage of news releases as well as e-mails to potential customers reiterating the benefits of their products and services.

“There must be at least 40 or 50 companies offering solutions,” said Ed Treacy, co-chair of the Produce Traceability Initiative’s implementation working group and vice president of supply chain efficiencies for the Produce Marketing Association, Newark, N.J.

Some of those firms have sprung up in recent months, while others have been around for decades.

Longwood, Fla.-based N2N Global entered the food supply chain arena almost 30 years ago as Kirkey & Associates, serving the citrus industry. Now it serves a range of industries and government entities on four continents.

Washington Fruit and Produce Co., Yakima, Wash., started using N2N services 20 years ago when it needed accounting support, according to Bryan Mains, controller.

The relationship evolved to include supply chain management.

Then, in 2010, the grower-shipper turned to N2N for additional traceability systems as it prepared to open a new apple packing facility. Washington Fruit now uses a unique identifier in tracking each case of apples, pears and cherries from its orchards to warehouses and retail customers.

“We can track packing and quality and statistics using N2N Global software as we pack the fruit,” Mains said. “In the 20 years we’ve been with N2N Global, our business has grown fourfold and they have been able to grow with us.”

Mains said one key to having a successful traceability system is to use a firm that has experience in the produce industry and to talk with others in the industry, as well as your trading partners, to see what they are using.

 Associations can help

Produce industry leaders involved with the Produce Traceability Initiative echoed that advice.

Both Treacy and Jane Proctor, vice president for policy and issue management for the Canadian Produce Marketing Association in Ottawa, Ontario, said that produce businesses that have not selected a traceability solution provider should talk to their peers — nothing beats a personal recommendation.

“Especially for smaller operations, people should just talk to other people in the business,” Treacy said. “They should also contact their associations for ideas and recommendations.”

Grower-shippers search for best traceability solution fitWestern Growers is one association that is trying to help its members meet their traceability needs. Founded in 1926, Western Growers represents 90% of the fresh produce growers in California and 75% of those in Arizona. Together, these growers ship half of the fresh produce grown in the U.S., according to the association’s website.

“There are a lot of good solution providers for traceability,” said Hank Giclas, Western Growers senior vice president for science, technology and strategic planning.

“Many of our members are still trying to figure out how to (meet PTI milestones) though,” he said.

To help their members, Western Growers last year issued a complex request for proposals from technology firms, seeking help to set up the association’s “Growers’ Technology Solution” program.

“It’s more than just traceability,” Giclas said. “The Growers Technology Solution is a suite of solutions for growers to facilitate the collection, tracking, management, storage and output for traceability, sustainability and food safety information.”

In January Western Growers endorsed two providers — FoodLogiQ of Durham, N.C., and TrueTrac of Salinas, Calif. — for the program, which includes discounted rates for association members.

“The trend is for consumers to know more about the food on their plate and our program can help produce firms meet those and other emerging regulatory requirements for transparency,” Giclas said.

Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers, Leamington, Ontario, also is encouraging its members to meet PTI milestones.Grower-shippers search for best traceability solution fit

Richard Lee, compliance coordinator for the Ontario group, said that all marketers who export produce from the group’s growers are already PTI-compliant. And, the organization is going even further than PTI.

“Our organization has required all of our growers to identify each individual piece of produce,” Lee said.

The individual produce stickers include information about the date, location and time the produce was picked, in addition to other traceability information.

Lee said some of the Ontario greenhouse growers developed their own software solutions and others went with solution providers. Either way, he said produce people searching for a traceability solution should talk to others in the industry, particularly their trading partners, as part of their decision process.

He also said each business should have its own recall readiness plan with proper traceability initiatives.

“We can all learn a good lesson from what’s been happening in Europe,” Lee said. “It’s not a question of if we will need traceability, it’s a question of when.”

Different approaches

Two very different produce operations in distant corners of the U.S. sit at opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to traceability solutions.

Pensacola, Fla.-based Nature’s Choice Produce experimented with one of the more well-known traceability solutions about three years ago, but found it didn’t meet the company’s needs, said Doug Dickerson, owner and a member of the executive council of the National Watermelon Association.

Nature’s Choice ships about 1,000 to 1,200 semis of watermelons each year.

“We move around a lot to different farms of 100 to 150 acres during the season,” Dickerson said. “With the system we were using, the crews had to keep log sheets, which was a hassle, and I had to depend on the packing houses to keep track of labels.”

Then, one day, ScoringAg founder William Kanitz stopped by Dickerson’s office for a chat.

Bradenton, Fla.-based ScoringAg provides a one-stop-shop for all traceability and record-keeping needs for the produce industry, Kanitz said.

Dickerson was intrigued by the online database that is part of ScoringAg’s service, and the fact that he wouldn’t need a big computer system to use it.

“When I saw that I could customize it the way I wanted, I switched to ScoringAg,” Dickerson said. “I print my own stickers and I don’t have to depend on anyone else to keep track of things.”

ScoringAg also takes traceability to the individual consumer. Using a smartphone, consumers can scan a ScoringAg label and access the online database to see which grower’s field a watermelon came from, as well as other information about the growing and handling of the fruit.

About 3,000 miles away, in Hillsboro, Ore., third-generation blueberry grower-shipper Jeff Malensky and his family at the Oregon Blueberry Packing Co. are using a traceability system that their company developed for itself.

“We have been doing traceback for seven years,” Malensky said. “We have our own alpha-numeric system that tells us the grower, the field, variety, date picked, date received and date packed.”

Malensky said the company is PTI compliant and glad of it — they are poised to be among a handful of Oregon blueberry shippers who plan to begin exporting to South Korea this season, and traceback was just one of the requirements on which the foreign government insisted.

“Even without the South Korean opportunity, we wanted to add information to our labels because more and more consumers want to know ‘Who grew my blueberries?’ and with our labels they can look at a code, input it on a website and find out everything they want to know.”

Although their systems are different, there are similar goals behind what Dickerson is doing with his watermelons and what the Malensky family is doing with their blueberries.

Both companies have embraced the here-and-now need for traceability, and both Dickerson and Malensky say they encourage other produce businesses to do the same.

PTI recently posted a new best-practices guideline for formatting standard case labels and hybrid pallet labels. It also is available on the PTI website.

 General tips for selecting a provider include:

  • Ask about the level of training and support offered with systems;
  • Look for competitive pricing for labels, hardware/software, implementation, customization, maintenance and support;
  • Make sure there is adequate security for data and proprietary information;
  • Check for the ability to integrate with your existing systems and the systems of your trading partners;
  • Make sure the provider understands you need whole-chain traceability, not just one-step-up/one-step-back; and
  • Seek a provider with experience in the produce sector.