LAS VEGAS — The good news is that the traceability demo center on the show floor was packed with people at United Fresh 2010, April 21-22.

PTI needs strong leadership but isn’t getting it

Greg Johnson

But one can’t help but feel the bad news: Traceability and the Produce Traceability Initiative’s progress have stalled.

One former retail executive says the reason is clear: lack of leadership.

“The industry sorely needs leadership on this issue,” said Bruce Peterson, president of Peterson Insights Inc., Bentonville, Ark., former Wal-Mart vice president of perishables and new United Fresh board member.

“This is the first time I can remember where the right people said ‘We’re going to do this (PTI)’ and then just didn’t do it,” he said. “I don’t understand it.”

Peterson didn’t mention any companies by name, but several large buying organizations sent a letter to suppliers last October saying they were sticking to the PTI timeline and they expected suppliers to do the same.

The buyers who signed the letter were: Wal-Mart, Safeway, Schnuck Markets, The Kroger Co., Sysco Corp., Wegmans Food Markets, SuperValu, Food Lion, H.E. Butt and Pro*Act.

In February, the PTI steering committee met in Dallas and confirmed that the PTI timeline and goals are still valid.

Yet in the meantime, no leader from one of these organizations has been outspoken about the industry following the timeline.

No one outside industry association staff has either.

Not to pick on one of these fine leaders, but neither outgoing United Fresh chairman Jim Lemke nor new chairwoman Steffanie Smith (who do not represent one of those large buyers) mentioned PTI by name in their addresses to attendees in Las Vegas.

Add no buyer leadership to the cost of implementing PTI and fear that Congress or the Food and Drug Administration will undo any progress made on traceability, and one can see why the supply side hasn’t embraced the PTI.

“Suppliers are taking this non-action as that retailers are not supporting it, and you can’t blame them,” said Gary Fleming, president of consulting firm Symbolon Group, Denver, and former traceability expert with the Produce Marketing Association.

Peterson says not long ago, a strong leader would have moved this initiative forward, and the industry would have followed.

He said he remembers when Price Look-Up numbers were being debated in the late 1980s, and people like then-Vons executive Dick Spezzano telling the industry his company was moving forward with PLUs, and any supplier who didn’t use them wasn’t getting Vons’ business.

“People would put their personal and professional reputations on the line for the good of the industry,” Peterson said. “Where are they now? Did the industry change that much in three years (since I left Wal-mart)?”

Spezzano, who was also at United Fresh 2010 and has been following PTI, confirmed that the PLU issue in the 1980s was similar.

“The key is that we said to suppliers ‘I’m going to give preference to those who use PLUs, and I’m willing to pay for it,’” he said. “You can’t just demand it.”

There have been plenty of critics of PTI, some with valid reservations, but I’ve yet to hear someone present a traceability alternative that is better than PTI.

It’s likely that the FDA and Congress will require something very similar to PTI.

Fleming is confident that when Congress gets to a food safety bill this summer, hopefully, the industry will see something very similar to PTI.

“Both House and Senate bills don’t contradict PTI,” he said. “FDA tells me … PTI is effective if the industry implements it.”

Peterson said he’s confident PTI is the right approach to traceability.

“The reasons why PTI came into being are still valid,” he said. “That committee (of buyer groups) owes the industry an explanation as to why they’re not pushing it.”

So let’s see, PTI needs a champion, a powerful executive from that group of buyers to tell the industry “We’re going to move forward with PTI, and we’re willing to pay for it.”

I see Kroger’s vice president for produce and floral merchandising and procurement, Reggie Griffin, is United Fresh’s chairman-elect.

Is it fair to point to one person to lead this effort?

No, but I have to think his resume would look an awful lot like Griffin’s.


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