The Produce Traceability Initiative is at that awkward adolescent stage.

Industry is waiting for PTI to bloom

Tom Karst
National Editor

You know PTI, or some form of it, will eventually grow up in some respectable fashion, but the process is painful to watch.

Part of the mystery about the Produce Traceability Initiative relates to the fact that meetings of the steering committee have been closed to the media.

Members of the Produce Marketing Association, the United Fresh Produce Association and the Canadian Produce Marketing Association received the same statement The Packer received about the Feb. 19 meeting of the 50-plus steering committee in Dallas.

The release said the members engaged in a “frank and open” discussion about the initiative status and direction.

My ego is not so large that I believe my presence at a meeting like this would have afforded any great illumination about the process to readers.

But being there to pull a real quote from “frank and open” discussion would have served the industry. Perhaps an “off the record” presence would have at least added to understanding of the process.

The result of the meeting was summed up in the joint statement: The committee members “unanimously reaffirmed their commitment to the two-year-old initiative’s goal to drive whole-chain traceability through common data standards, supported a more robust engagement and dialogue with all industry sectors, and recommended a closer partnership with GS1 US to bring expertise and operational support to the initiative.”

One disappointment for me was that the PTI steering committee hasn’t released any details of the industry survey that concluded in early January.

One of the intents of the meeting was to measure PTI progress and barriers to implementation, but there was nothing in the statement from the associations that gives a solid idea of where PTI stands throughout the supply chain.

Particularly, there seems to be angst among grower-shippers about the costs of PTI implementation, and, perhaps more importantly, how those costs will be recovered from the supply chain.

What’s more, many believe they have adequate traceability systems in place and wonder if the buying community is well and truly on board with making the kind of investments needed to meet the timeline’s goals.

And there is the question of unfinished work on PTI best practices for scanning inbound and outbound cases of produce at wholesale operations and retail distribution centers.

Other take-aways from the statement are buzzwords about “leadership engagement” and “greater stakeholder involvement” that frankly aren’t well defined.

I have seen one comment that compares the U.S. PTI process with a similar and successful transformation of produce traceability that occurred in Europe several years ago.

The suggestion that our European produce brethren and association counterparts were more efficient and thoughtful in pulling off industry wide traceability than their American counterparts is unsettling. When did the Old World ever get it right before the U.S., after all?

Clearly, association leadership wants the PTI to be recognized by Congress and the FDA as an effective industry-driven solution to traceability, and as perhaps the model for any mandated version that might be imposed.

That is a worthy goal.

Yet this economy has beaten up the consumer and left no room for operators to add cost to the system, and they are pushing back.

This topic generated some discussion from reader comments on the story and at the LinkedIn Fresh Produce Industry Discussion Group. Perhaps more than the joint news release from the associations, these comments (made anonymous here) convey where the industry is right now with PTI:

  • “I don’t think it’s a question of IF this will happen ... It’s only WHEN.”
  • “PTI has hit a wall in the timeline. The wall is technology on the receiver end. I also believe the terminal, small distributors and foodservice operators are struggling with the overall costs of implementation and how those cost will be absorbed.”
  • “It will take time and effort for the PTI to succeed, but it will get there.”
  • “The PTI has been a push primarily by a few large retailers to force their preferences onto the industry — it didn’t work in 2003 when they tried the same thing then — they are not just behind on timelines, their very first timeline, which passed about a year ago, has clearly not been met.”
  • “Again, the internal steps (as laid out in the PTI) that involve scanning inbound and outbound cases are a deal breaker. The labor required and/or technology costs will not be acceptable nor undertaken unless mandated by government.”
  • “Tell what retailer or foodservice entity is willing to pay more for their products. The topic of cost and how the increased cost will be handled MUST be discussed now before later.”
  • “I believe the investment to the traceability program is an ASAP MUST and the ONLY WAY today to assure our consumers that we CARE of their WELL BEING and we are committed to their food safety.”

Time will tell whether the gangly, rebellious teenager that is the PTI will blossom into a fine looking young adult who is a credit to society.

All I can say is that PMA, United Fresh and CPMA are not done parenting this kid yet.

E-mail tkarst@thepacker.com

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