I had the chance on July  1 to chat with Gary Fleming, vice president of industry technology and standards for Newark, Del.-based PMA.

3:01 p.m. Tom Karst: Gary thanks for taking part in this Fresh Talk chat. You have had a heavy workload with traceability. What has your schedule been like and what’s on your plate for the next month?

3:04 p.m. Gary Fleming: I have been participating as a speaker and or as a resource at various conferences, webinars and Webcasts talking about the Produce Traceability Initiative. I will be on a webcast with The Packer on July 7, as well as conducting a full day seminar on the PTI as part of PMA’s Fresh Connections in Cincinnati.

3:05 p.m. Tom: I’m sure you have some interested audiences all over the country. Traceability is an issue that has sparked a lot of discussion. Before we get into some
those details, describe your background and how you came to the PMA to be their lead expert on this issue.

3:08 p.m. Gary: I have spent 15 years on the manufacturing side of the food industry. After spending a few years employed by the standards organization, GS1, I have spent the balance of my time working on industry efficiencies and best practices. My understanding of business process, practices, in conjunction with the use of technology, brought me to where I am today.

3:10 p.m. Tom: This initiative is being taken on in the midst of an economic downturn. How much do you think the recession has flavored the PTI debate?

3:13 p.m. Gary: Certainly the economic situation we are faced with today has had a factor with those wishing to implement the PTI. I would make a guess that no company would agree to spend money on something unless they absolutely had to. We realize this and have done everything we could to minimize any additional expenses to obtain whole chain traceability.

3:15 p.m. Tom: As you assess where the whole supply chain is in reference to the PTI time line, what would be your observation at this point in time?

3:17 p.m. Gary: As there is no tangible way to measure the progress to date of the PTI, I have to go upon what the sponsoring trade associations have experienced via phone calls, emails, webinars and conferences. The key players of the industry, on both the buy side and the sell side, have endorsed the PTI. We believe the industry is exactly where they need to be. The questions and comments are those of implementation, not of “should I do this”.

3:21 p.m. Tom: One comment I’ve heard — perhaps it was an isolated view — was the feeling that GTIN/GS1 shouldn’t be the only way to accomplish the traceability goal. Do you hear that objection in your presentations, and how would you answer that?

3:27 p.m. Gary: I do not hear that in my presentations. I would say, however, that the benefit of using a standardized approach benefits all: the buyers, the sellers, the FDA, and ultimately, the consumer. If we do not have a uniform way of identifying and tracking product, we will be no better off than we are today. This includes no standardized number, no consistent pieces of information used for traceability, no standardized communication vehicle, multiple cross references, etc, etc. If this pervades, then the FDA will be no better off in attempting their traceback. They should not have to wrestle with data conversion or system incompatibilities. By using standards as the common links between companies’ internal traceability systems, it would provide a common language that would link one company’s system to another. This will enable the FDA to get the information they need more consistently and much faster.

3:28 p.m. Tom: In your position, you have probably had many encounters with FDA officials. Are you confident that FDA “gets” what the industry is doing and will take that into account when putting out possible new regs?

3:31 p.m. Gary: Yes I am. The FDA has a lot of employees. PMA, along with United Fresh, has reached out on several occasions to talk with key FDA employees. We have yet another meeting scheduled with them at their offices on July 8. What we have heard to-date from those we’ve met with was that this is a great approach to whole-chain traceability. The only negative comments we have received from them was that it wasn’t fast enough.

3:34 p.m. Tom: Gary, you have been generous with your time. I look forward to your Webcast with Greg Johnson next week. One more question; is there any tension between goal of case level and item level traceability? Would item level traceability solve problems (repacking, for example) that case level traceability can’t do? Is there an argument the industry should go ahead and execute item level traceability?

3:41 p.m. Gary: The PTI went with case-level traceability as every handler, from harvest to store, handles the case. Not every handler sees the item inside the case. So no matter how much information is on the item, not every handler will see that. Each handling point in the supply chain is a possible site for infestation to occur, and therefore tracking, at minimum, should be done at the case level. The case is also the common denominator for both grocery and foodservice. Item-level coding does not provide data on every handler. It can however, offer other store-level, marketing and category management efficiencies. If companies wish to supplement their systems to take advantage of these added efficiencies, that is a decision they will have to make. I appreciated the time spent chatting with me.

3:42 p.m. Tom: Gary thanks again. Very informative for me and our readers as well.

3:43 p.m. Gary: Thanks, Tom.