LAS VEGAS â The good news is that the traceability demo center on the show floor was packed with people at United Fresh 2010, April 21-22.
But one canât help but feel the bad news: Traceability and the Produce Traceability Initiativeâs progress have stalled.
One former retail executive says the reason is clear: lack of leadership.
âThe industry sorely needs leadership on this issue,â said Bruce Peterson, president of Peterson Insights Inc., Bentonville, Ark., former Wal-Mart vice president of perishables and new United Fresh board member.
âThis is the first time I can remember where the right people said âWeâre going to do this (PTI)â and then just didnât do it,â he said. âI donât understand it.â
Peterson didnât 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 hasnât embraced the PTI.
âSuppliers are taking this non-action as that retailers are not supporting it, and you canât blame them,â 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 didnât use them wasnât getting Vonsâ business.
âPeople would put their personal and professional reputations on the line for the good of the industry,â Peterson said. âWhere are they now? Did the industry change that much in three years (since I left Wal-mart)?â
Spezzano, who was also at United Fresh 2010 and has been following PTI, confirmed that the PLU issue in the 1980s was similar.
âThe key is that we said to suppliers âIâm going to give preference to those who use PLUs, and Iâm willing to pay for it,ââ he said. âYou canât just demand it.â
There have been plenty of critics of PTI, some with valid reservations, but Iâve yet to hear someone present a traceability alternative that is better than PTI.
Itâs 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.
âBoth House and Senate bills donât contradict PTI,â he said. âFDA tells me â¦ PTI is effective if the industry implements it.â
Peterson said heâs confident PTI is the right approach to traceability.
âThe reasons why PTI came into being are still valid,â he said. âThat committee (of buyer groups) owes the industry an explanation as to why theyâre not pushing it.â
So letâs see, PTI needs a champion, a powerful executive from that group of buyers to tell the industry âWeâre going to move forward with PTI, and weâre willing to pay for it.â
I see Krogerâs vice president for produce and floral merchandising and procurement, Reggie Griffin, is United Freshâs 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 Griffinâs.
Agree? Disagree? Leave a comment and tell us your opinion.