March/April 2019

How The Produce Traceability Initiative (PTI) is progressing

By Zeke Jennings | Managing Editor

Two E. coli outbreaks involving romaine lettuce last year has tracking and traceability at the forefront of the produce industry once again. While there is nothing good about E. coli contamination, the instances do prompt examination of where traceability technology and application has come since the 2006 spinach outbreak that claimed the lives of three people, including 2-year-old Kyle Allgood.

Following that 2006 outbreak, the produce industry collectively got together and said, “We can’t let this happen again.” The Produce Traceability Initiative (PTI) eventually was created by the Produce Marketing Association (PMA), United Fresh Produce Association and the Canadian Produce Marketing Association. Barcode standards organization GS1 eventually became the fourth organizer of the voluntary initiative.

As PMA’s vice president of supply chain and sustainability, Ed Treacy is one of the authorities on PTI, which now has dozens of participating companies. Produce Processing recently caught up with Treacy to talk about the state of traceability and where it’s headed.

What percentage of produce shipped has PTI-complaint barcoded labels?

Ed Treacy: Where we’re at with implementing PTI is there is around 60 to 65 percent of all cases in the U.S. supply chain that are labeled with barcoded PTI-compliant labels. We’ve done a good job on the supply side. We’re not there yet — and I’ll never rest until we’re at 100 percent — but we are getting some good traction. This is a voluntary initiative. We have learned from the last two romaine outbreaks and there has been a lot of industry collaboration with the CDC and the FDA using the romaine issues in saying ‘OK, we’re still not there, we still need to do a better job of connecting the dots and being able to identify the source quicker.’

What have been the major developments?

Ed Treacy, vice president of supply chain and sustainability, Produce Marketing Association

ET: You’ve probably seen clips of Frank Yiannas (formerly) of Walmart talking about blockchain and what they’re doing with IBM. … Even with PTI in place, he still felt it was taking too long to do a traceback investigation. IBM created the Food Trust Network, which is a blockchain-enabled solution for supply chain visibility. They did a test prior to using it and it took them six days, 18 hours and 26 minutes to do a traceback on a container of sliced mangoes. After they implemented their blockchain solution, it took them 2.2 seconds to go back to the two growers and know everything about the product right back to the harvest. He was so enamored by the results, Walmart, which could have pushed ahead and gone on their own, said this is too big for us to do on our own — this is game-changing. They actually slowed and brought on partners — competitors with Wegmans and Kroger being the main ones — and said we’ve got to do this thing together. They involved Dole and Driscoll and made a concept to have full-blown pilots, and some other non-produce companies were involved as well. (Walmart recently made this a requirement for all of its leafy greens suppliers.)

What are the biggest challenges?

ET: PTI got a really big bump the end of 2013, when Walmart issued a directive to all of their produce suppliers saying if you want to continue to service Walmart, you need to label your cases with PTI-compliant labels. … There is a handful of other retailers that have made a PTI a requirement, but we could still use more making it a requirement. I do know that in talking to people at Kroger and Wegmans with their work on the blockchain pilot, they would very much like to be in the same position as Walmart, but they know they need to put some fundamental business processes in place in their operation before they can take advantage of PTI labeling and posting information to the blockchain. Walmart had an advantage in that because, in June 2017, they made it a requirement that all companies shipping fresh produce had to send them an advancement shipment notification (ASN), which is basically an electronic bill of lading. … That brings efficiency in receiving and planning capabilities within their distribution network.

How can food producers and shippers use PTI labels to their advantage?

ET: My advice to anybody growing and packaging fresh produce is to implement PTI. There is a number of examples of companies that have offset the cost of the couple of cents it costs them to label a case through reengineering their business processes. I’ve seen companies, and my recommendation, is I would ship produce in plain brown boxes. All the information you would typically pay printers, the logo, the country of origin, the products in the box, put that on your PTI label. That way your cardboard boxes are cheaper and they don’t have to be printed. No one sees your cardboard boxes anyway except the receiver at the grocery store. … I’ve seen companies that give employees a barcoded badge and they scan the case as they put it on the pallet and then they scan their employee badge. Now, you have 100 percent accurate logging of who has done what. You don’t need to have that payroll clerk take that tally sheet and key it at the end of the day, and it’s accurate.

Any advice for small food producers?

ET: First, I need to differentiate between good agricultural and food safety handling versus traceability. I don’t care if you’re shipping to a small convenience store, a one-store grocery chain or to Walmart — everybody growing and packaging fresh produce should be doing it properly from a food safety perspective. … Traceability is part of all food safety programs and practices, having the ability to trace and testing that. But it only comes into play when something goes wrong.

Anything else produce processors should keep an eye on?

ET: The FDA was required to come up with regulations for record keeping for high-risk foods in 2011 for FSMA. They have not issued or drafted those regulations yet because the state of California sued them on some of the other regulations that came out in FSMA, so they prioritized those. Frank Yiannas was named the deputy commissioner of the FDA late last year, so I’m anxiously awaiting to see where that record keeping for high-risk foods is going to be accelerated. Frank, when he was at Walmart, was passionate about protecting consumers’ health and, in the event of a foodborne illness, having great traceability mechanisms in place to identify and pull the product. Also just as important, in finding out what product was safe to eat. It doesn’t do the population or businesses any good when people are throwing out healthy food that’s safe to eat.

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