If you’re in a quandary over the Produce Traceability Initiative, you’re not alone.
Some grower-shippers already have decided to implement PTI, some are just sticking their toe in the water and others are taking a wait-and-see approach.
In a nutshell, the PTI is administered by the Produce Marketing Association, United Fresh Produce Association and Canadian Produce Marketing Association. It “is designed to help the industry maximize the effectiveness of current traceback procedures, while developing a standardized industry approach to enhance the speed and efficiency of traceability systems for the future,” according to the PTI action plan.
In 2008, an industrywide steering committee came up with an action plan that sets a series of seven implementation milestones. These specific time goals for launching various stages of a traceback program, that if all goes according to plan, will enable any case of produce to be traced from grower to retailer by 2012.
Actually, produce is well behind the rest of supermarket products in the traceability category, says Julia Stewart, PMA’s Newark, Del.-based public relations director and PTI spokeswoman.
“We are catching up with some of the basic warehousing, logistics and product identification practices that the rest of the grocery store has been using for well over a decade,” she says.
The goal of the initiative is twofold—to offer a workable whole-chain traceback system and to develop an industry-generated program that will meet requirements that the government may dictate.
Lawmakers currently are considering food safety parameters that industry experts say are likely to include electronic record keeping and product identification numbers that will enable a product to be traced throughout the supply chain.
GS1 product identification standards, company prefixes and global trade item numbers are included in the PTI and should meet any government requirements, Stewart says.
The voluntary PTI is not a certification program, she says, but a set of guidelines that would apply to just about anyone “who puts product into a carton or touches a finished carton of product.”
Exceptions to any final rules likely will be in keeping with the Bioterrorism Act of 2002, which exempts direct marketers and growers who sell directly to retailers.
Some growers have decided to hold off until the government develops a final plan.
“We really don’t know what’s going to happen from a federal legislative standpoint,” says Mike Aerts, director of marketing and membership for the Maitland-based Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association.
Something will happen in the area of food safety and traceability, he says. But “PTI may or may not mimic what ultimately could be required from the federal regulatory agencies.”
Many growers are reluctant to invest in the equipment, resources and personnel necessary to comply with PTI then have to change to something else, he says.
PTI compliance would not be required of growers who produce oranges for processing, Aerts says.
Oviedo, Fla.-based A. Duda & Sons Inc. has endorsed the PTI program, says Alan Newton, who served on the PTI steering committee. Duda has met the three PTI milestones so far.
The company conducted a test of the program in October at its celery operation in California and plans to conduct a similar test with its radish program in Belle Glade, Fla., early this year.
Duda will be applying PTI labels on the radish packing line rather than in the field, which will make tagging easier, he says.
One challenge during the four-week field trial was tag management—making sure the right labels were in the right place at the right time, Newton says.
Another was tag adhesion. Labels were applied to various types of containers, including waxed and corrugated boxes, and reusable plastic containers.
“There were issues getting the tags to stay on the RPCs,” he says, but he expects those to be resolved.
Eventually, PTI likely will become a standard that will be used throughout the supply chain, he says. But for now, “We are not going to go out and spend the money to do all of this stuff until we see that the entire industry is behind it.”
Grower Greg Leger, president of Leger and Son Inc. in Cordele, Ga., which has a watermelon-growing operation in Florida, needed a traceback program because the company packs product from up to five packinghouses at the same time.
“We needed to be able to trace back to the farm that it came from,” he says.
Leger signed up with the HarvestMark program from the Redwood City, Calif.-based company.
“It worked really well,” he says.
The program also enables the company to track purchases by varieties, monitor yields and to know which shed has the most production.
Costs to be determined
Costs of the PTI should be born by the brand owner, PMA’s Stewart says.
If you’re a grower and somebody else packs for you under their label, she says, “The only burden you’re going to have is providing the lot number and making sure that when you deliver product, you define for your packer where that product came from.”
How much the program will cost is hard to determine and will depend on how advanced your operation is.
If you already use scanners and barcodes, “you’ve got a leg up,” Stewart says.
A PMA study found that just getting a GS1 company prefix would cost a $100 million company a $20,000 initial fee, followed by an annual fee of $500 to $1,000 per year.
Bar coding and scanning information, computer upgrades, labels, equipment maintenance and other costs are extra and vary from company to company.
“There could be significant opportunities for some pretty hefty costs,” Aerts says.
He says he’s heard reports that label printing for containers alone could reach $15,000 to $20,000.
Grower Leger says coded labels cost about an additional 1 cent apiece or $26 for a load of 2,600 watermelons.
“It is additional cost, but I don’t see any choice,” he says, especially when more and more retailers require traceability.
“Nobody has a handle on what the true costs are going to be,” says Duda’s Newton.
He says he’s heard that the cost can range from 10 to 20 cents per carton, depending on the commodity and whether the product is field packed or packed on a line.
“This isn’t going to be free,” says Elliott Grant, chief marketing officer for HarvestMark.
He estimates that the cost can be 2 to 3 cents per case, but those costs can vary based on a variety of factors, and it’s important to understand the benefits as well as the costs.
HarvestMark has a cost-benefit calculator on its Web site—http://www.harvestmark.com.
No one knows for sure what form traceability standards eventually will take, but it would be unwise to assume nothing is going to happen, Grant says.