(Dec. 13, STAFF COLUMN) If the produce industry wants to implement whole-chain traceability without federal mandate, it will certainly have an opportunity to prove it.

The first meeting of the steering committee of the Produce Traceability Initiative is scheduled on Jan. 9 in Atlanta.

The initiative was announced in October by the Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association, the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association and the Ottawa, Canada-based Canadian Produce Marketing Association. Members of the steering committee were announced Nov. 28.

The steering committee may grow, with the addition of wholesalers likely before the January meeting, said David Gombas, senior vice president for food safety and technology for the United Fresh Produce Association, Washington, D.C.

The intentional inclusiveness of the group is to be applauded, but the task for leaders is sobering: make a strong case to the whole trade about the importance of produce traceability.

Indeed, Food and Drug Administration officials see the lack of clear produce traceability as a major industry vulnerability during food safety recalls. Consumer groups are now asking the FDA to mandate traceability, so time is of the essence to demonstrate the industry is moving together toward whole chain traceability.

The action plan for implementation of whole chain traceability, resulting from the first meeting and others, should be a decisive call to action. It should detail measures that show the industry can and will act in its own best interest, without a federal mandate.

Defining those measures — and how to arrive at the desired destination in a timely way — will require the best efforts of the steering committee.