Tom Karst, National Editor
Tom Karst, National Editor

Why aren’t more things in life mandatory?

OK, there is a fair amount of dread in anything that must be done, and April 15 is the prime example in that regard since we can’t dwell on the uncertain day of our demise with any heartfelt conviction.

At the same time, mandatory duties are somewhat freeing. There is no doubt or decision whether or not the task must be done.

So it is done.

For that reason, I think traceability should be mandatory for fresh produce marketers. As is my custom, I created a poll on the issue in the Fresh Produce Industry Discussion Group and found no objections to the premise.

The question: “Considering continued issues with traceback investigations, should case level traceability be mandatory for all fresh produce marketers?”

So far, there are no arguments in the discussion thread (at against mandatory traceability.

Supporters say case-level traceability will result in less waste, lower insurance costs, instant visibility, better quality food, brand protection and more.

One commenter said that traceback investigations require inventory control, suggesting the industry is playing a “joke on the world” without at least case-level traceability.

Another said consumers should demand traceability from farm to fork.

While those who market traceability solutions will of course be in favor of “must-do” traceability, it is time for the whole industry to embrace the notion.

For example, if every produce marketer were required to have case-level traceability by a certain date, then it would take some of the drama out of the question of industry progress toward the milestones of the Produce Traceability Initiative.

How are we doing? Still not good enough, survey says.

Of course traceability is now framed as a voluntary industry initiative, so the concept of it would have to be retooled.

If traceability is considered a “voluntary” if inevitable initiative, at least most produce professionals agree that safe produce growing and handling practices should be standard operating procedure.

But of course this is also not the case.

I observed the distress caused by the foodborne illness outbreak attributed to southwest Indiana cantaloupes among other produce marketers.

When I spoke last week with Hank Giclas, senior vice president for science, technology and strategic planning for Irvine, Calif.-based Western Growers, he mentioned frustration among Western melon producers about inconsistent expectations from receivers.

While buyers may demand third-party audits, GFSI certification and PTI compliance from California and Arizona producers, those same receivers seem to be sourcing from other local marketers with no food safety programs whatsoever in place.

Likewise, Steve Patricio, president of Firebaugh, Calif.-based Westside Produce and chairman of the California Cantaloupe Advisory Board, Dinuba, told me the “buy side” has dropped the ball in recent food safety outbreaks.

Too much faith has been put in procurement partners who haven’t done due diligence in regard to food safety issues, he told me.

Are some buyers trading food safety assurances for lower delivered costs? Are retailers so captured by the romantic vision of local producers that they are willing to overlook insufficient and sketchy production and handling practices?

I’m sure no retailer would want to agree to that characterization. But foodborne outbreaks continue to occur and more must be done to prevent them.

Can buyers and sellers of a particular commodity create a fraternity of those who always adhere to food safety principles and only do business with only those who do as well?

Can that “quality-checked” program also deliver traceability compliance?

A solution like that must be considered.

While local producers of fruits and vegetables will always have roadside stands and farmers markets to sell to, only those with an appropriate level of food safety and traceback capabilities should be trusted with supplying the commercial food system.

I was interested to read recently that Japanese retailers are increasing marketing of private-label fresh vegetables by investing in their own farming operations and also by entering into direct contracts with growers.

One of the advantages cited for retailers trying that approach in the story from the Daily Yomiuri was the ability to tout food safety attributes of private-label produce.

I don’t think retailers in the U.S. are inclined to invest in lettuce or melon fields, but they may give it more than a passing thought if the industry cannot together make final progress toward food safety and traceability compliance.

For the industry it should be GAPs, PTI, taxes and death, and preferably in that order.

What's your take? Leave a comment and tell us your opinion.