Tom Karst, National Editor
Tom Karst, National Editor

"Hey Brandon, Michael, you need guys to do me a favor and get off the shed. I need you to be a buddy and get off the shed. Thanks.”

You might recall a hilarious “Saturday Night Live” skit depicting the awkwardness of being with adults who lose it when they discipline their kids.

The request to “get off the shed” from Dad (Will Ferrell) is first spoken to his kids in a pleasant tone as the suburban family hosts a barbecue with friends of the family.

The scene quickly escalates with Dad inserting increasingly angry exclamations to his boys to “get off the shed” in the flow of fake pleasant golf and landscaping talk with the guest couple.

“Hey guys, I mean it, let’s get off the shed.”

“Get off the (expletive) shed!”

“Hey, there is going to be a meeting between your (expletive) and the palm of my hand if you don’t get off the shed! Now get off the shed!”

“I will punch you in the face if you don’t get off the shed! Now get off the shed! Get off the (expletive) shed!”

While there is no physical beating yet threatened, Wal-Mart just told its produce suppliers that haven’t implemented the Produce Traceability Initiative to “get off the shed” and implement PTI.

The May 29 letter was long-awaited by industry advocates of PTI, who have said this authoritative command from “Dad” was what the outliers to PTI needed to get the message.

The letter tells fresh suppliers that effective Nov. 1 all fresh produce delivered to a Wal-Mart distribution center will be required to have standardized case labels, consistent with the PTI standards.

As I look back at The Packer library files, I reviewed the history and the timeline of PTI. You will remember PTI was launched in October 2007 by the Newark, Del-based Produce Marketing Association, the Ottawa-based Canadian Produce Marketing Association and United Fresh Produce Association, Washington, D.C.

The steering committee of PTI met to set a timeline for adoption, with the milestone for supplier compliance for putting PTI labels on cases by September 2010, with all subsequent milestones to be done by the end of 2012.

At the time, the message was relaxed: “Be a good industry citizen and adopt PTI. Thanks.”

Obviously, not all suppliers moved with the first exhortation and the many that followed.

In coverage published in The Packer in April, Ed Treacy, PMA vice president of supply chain efficiencies and co-chairman of the PTI implementation and the PTI buyers working groups, estimated that about 40% of produce suppliers are using PTI. That, if my math is correct, leaves about 60% who aren’t using PTI.

“Considering there have been very few retailers and foodservice companies taking a hard line and demanding it, that’s a very good voluntary adoption rate,” Treacy was quoted saying.

He said at the time that he thinks the number of suppliers adopting PTI will increase substantially after one of the major chains sets a firm date in requesting its suppliers’ implementation.

Setting a firm date translates to “get off the shed.”

Wal-Mart has delivered the message, and having a big gun lead the way just may work.

Wal-Mart’s letter said that the chain will work with suppliers who are making a “good faith effort” toward standard case labels by using the spec exemption process. Product that is not label compliant (after Nov. 1) will be received as out of spec unless an active exception has been issued by the buyer before delivery.

Beginning in 2014, Wal-Mart says product out of compliance will be rejected unless an active exception has been issued by the buyer before delivery.

Traceability solution providers are surely pleased with Wal-Mart’s letter. Fresh produce suppliers who haven’t put in place PTI compliant labeling should be motivated to do so.

Still, there remains some confusion about what needs to be done by the noncompliant.

One member of the Fresh Produce Industry Discussion Group asked, “What determines a PTI-compliant label? I am seeking a answer based upon Wal-Mart’s intent to accept only PTI-compliant very shortly. If a master carton or container includes PTI on the outside and the consumer pack does not, is it really traceable? Could someone clear this up for me?”

Gary Fleming, vice president of strategic services for RedLine Solutions Inc., Santa Clara, Calif., was ready with an answer to that question. Find what Gary’s answer was here.

Others question what the FDA will finally put forward about traceability in its food safety regulations, seeking assurances that any investments in PTI will not be in vain. Find comments on the docket that consider the learnings from FDA’s pilot traceability projects.

In the end, Wal-Mart’s muscle may finally give PTI’s late-adopters the motivation to move.

But will it set a dangerous precedent? Shouldn’t the government alone dictate mandatory requirements for traceback? If not, what is the next imperative to come down from Bentonville, Ark.?

The SNL skit scene finally ends with the off-camera boys apparently getting off the shed, only to hear the injunction from Mom (Mariel Hemingway).

“Brandon and Michael, I need you to do me a favor and get out of the fountain. Be a buddy and get out of the fountain.”

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