(May 6, 11:30 a.m.) LAS VEGAS — While questions remain about the cost of implementation and how smaller growers and middle-market operators will comply, the timeline for industrywide adoption of produce traceability standards is expected by mid-June.

That was the message from a panel of steering committee members from the Produce Industry Traceability Initiative to a standing-room-only workshop audience May 5 at the United Fresh Produce Association exposition.

Jane Proctor, director of industry technology and standardization for the Ottawa-based Canadian Produce Marketing Association, stressed that the Produce Traceability Initiative steering committee was not creating new standards.

“Efficiency is what it is about,” she said, noting that traceability solutions will facilitate the use of e-commerce, bar codes and radio frequency identification technology.

David Gombas, senior vice president of food safety and technology for Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh, said the steering committee of the traceability initiative met Jan. 9, Feb. 22, April 11 and will meet again June 12. The initiative is sponsored by the Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association, the Canadian Produce Marketing Association and United Fresh. Forty-one companies are participating, with nine foodservice operators/distributors, 13 retailers and 19 grower-shippers.

Gombas said the January meeting brought is consensus on four key points:

  • The GS1 standard is to be used achieve whole chain traceability;

  • A timeline is needed achieve whole chain traceability;

  • A public declaration is needed by each company; and

  • Start at the case level, with strong provision to move to item level

Gombas said the June 12 meeting will establish timelines for each milestone on the path of supply chain traceability. In comments after the session, Proctor said the steering committee might set a timetable for implementation in a range from 18 months to five years.

The June 12 meeting also involves officials from the Food and Drug Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Canadian food safety officials and fresh food associations.

Panelist Cathy Green, chief operating officer for Food Lion LLC, Salisbury, N.C., and chair of the Produce Traceability Initiative Steering Committee, said momentum was building to set a timeline in the coming June 12 meeting of the steering committee.

Noting strong support for traceability standards from leaders of both retail and foodservice companies, Green said the energy has shifted on the issue — even within the steering committee.

“In the last meeting there wasn’t as much cynicism, skepticism and denial in the room,” she said. “We finally got around to saying, ‘We’re finally going to do this.’”

Green said effective traceability will minimize product shrink, the effect on consumers and reduce the time required to conduct a recall.

Responding to a question after the event, Green said that no cost estimates have been finalized on what investments would be necessary by industry to bring their traceability systems to sufficient levels. However, she said cost estimates were being prepared for further review at the June 12 meeting.

Gary Fleming, vice president for industry technology and standards for Produce Marketing Association, speculated the costs will vary greatly, depending on the existing level of sophistication among firms.

“The reality is that everyone will be expected to do this — small, medium and large,” he said. “We are only as good as the weakest link in the supply chain.”

Green said the industry might have just one opportunity to create an industry-driven solution before the government becomes involved with new mandates on the industry. She said Gombas and Fleming will meet with USDA and FDA officials on May 22 to bring them in to the discussion about the traceability initiative.

“They are interested in hearing what we are doing, she said.

“We’re hoping we can enroll them in what we are doing versus something that is a lot harsher and costs a lot more money,” Green said.

Timeline set for produce traceability standards
David Gombas, senior vice president, food safety & technology for the United Fresh Produce Association, Washington, D.C., at the May 5 traceability workshop. Gombas said the steering committee of the traceability initiative — which held meetings on Jan. 9, Feb. 22 and April 11 — will meet again June 12.