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The U.S. has a tremendous ability to produce and distribute healthy and nutritious fresh produce in an efficient and safe manner. It is recognized that there is always a risk for a pathogen to slip past the many checks and balances currently in place to ensure food safety. Even with dedicated industry efforts, events do occur. During the last six months of 2012, there were 16 documented recalls of produce involving apples, cantaloupes, mangoes, romaine lettuce, cherry tomatoes, and bagged salads.
While most companies engaged in the growing, packing, processing, and distribution of our nation’s fruits and vegetables have had some sort of internal traceability program in place since the Bio Terrorism Act of 2002 (one step up—one step back with subsequent records), the produce industry realized this was not good enough in the event of a food safety issue impacting its complex supply chain. In 2007, the fruit and vegetable industry took on the task of developing an external traceability program, the Produce Traceability Initiative (PTI), to complement the Bioterrorism Act. The initiative aims to assist governmental agencies in quickly identifying the location of specific implicated products by lot or batch number for removal from the supply chain. Its mission is to create an action plan to adopt an effective whole chain traceability program for the produce industry by incorporating the use of technology and common standards that serve as linkages between internal traceability programs.
As with any initiative involving process change and technology, there are challenges for early adopters. The PTI is no exception. The recommendation to apply a barcode on each case of produce is a whole new adventure for produce growers and shippers. The use of barcode technology is not new to the packaged food industry, it was first introduced to the retail trade in 1974 when a pack of Wrigley’s Spearmint chewing gum was the first UPC scanned at Marsh’s Supermarket in Troy, Ohio. But for bulk produce, it was indeed an undertaking.
In order to coordinate this produce industry-wide traceability initiative, 53 companies, including grower-shippers, wholesalers, retailers, food service distributors, and technology providers, volunteered to participate in 10 various working groups. Each working group of experts created guidance and best practice documents to pave the way for the use of standards.
The PTI Technology Working Group (one of nine PTI working groups) consists of a broad spectrum of technology companies who provide software, hardware, and technical consulting services. The group worked collectively to develop best practices for the industry, and to date have compiled and vetted best practices for Formatting Case Labels, Private Label/Brand, Direct Print, Product Substitutions, Cross Docking, Labeling Hybrid Pallets, and Best Practices for Repacking/Commingling.
Reading Between the Barcode Lines
The supply side began to pilot the different methods of attaching the Global Trade Idem Number, which includes the brand owner identification and item reference number, and the lot or batch number to each case of produce. The industry’s initial reaction centered around the potential disruption of current processes and the cost of labeling, whether it occurred in the field at point of harvest, in the facility on packing lines, or at time of shipment. All of these methods were tested multiple times by various solution providers and their supply side clients. The solution providers were able to successfully limit the impact to the current process efficiencies and keep the cost down.
A huge challenge was labeling at time of harvest for those produce items packaged immediately in the field to be sent down the supply chain, bypassing a packing facility. Should labels be preprinted in the office and delivered to the field, or printed in the field? Would it be feasible to label at the point of shipment, even if it impacted established processes and required additional handling of highly perishable produce? The additional challenge of unpredictable field conditions, including heat, wind, rain, dust, and mud, and factor in the fast pace at which the professional harvest crews work, and the situation becomes even more difficult. However, the best results were found when the harvest crews were asked to help design a solution to meet the objective that would be best integrated with their process. The employees came up with methods to have the PTI-compliant labels accessible on the field harvest equipment for immediate placement on each case. Field managers were surprised by how quickly they were able to train harvest crews, with many being unfamiliar with the technology, and the gains in efficiencies the crews discovered.