All Produce Traceability Initiative milestones are in the rearview mirror, but the end of the road for the voluntary initiative to apply case labels on fresh produce cartons is not yet in sight. And if the destination will be reached, buyers will have to finish the drive.

But sponsoring organizations and industry leaders say the PTI structure will remain in place at least for the near future, as compliance rates under 50% haven’t given the voluntary initiative enough momentum to coast home unassisted.

Even with the milestones past, the Produce Traceability Initiative structure isn’t likely to go away anytime soon, said Jane Proctor, the Canadian Produce Marketing Association’s vice president of policy and issue management.

“There is still clearly an appetite for the group to remain together,” she said.

PTI milestones over but organization and goals continuePTI leadership council co-chairman Doug Grant, senior vice president and chief operations officer of Vancouver, British Columbia-based The Oppenheimer Group, also said he believes the organization will continue to operate.

“Until we reach a critical mass where it just becomes a common implementation for the industry, I could see it being around for a while yet,” Grant said.

The PTI timeline began with the goal of obtaining the company prefix the first quarter of 2009, with the last of the seven milestones reading and storing information on outbound cases by the end of 2012.

Waiting on buyer demands?

While the PTI’s buying working group hones its approach to handling case-labeling of produce cartons and the data behind it, industry estimates of supplier compliance with case labels is still under 50%.

Ed Treacy, vice president of supply chain efficiencies at the Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association, said the number of cases labeled with PTI-compliant information was between 20% and 40% at the end of the year.

For Oppenheimer, Grant said about 30% to 40% of the company’s many growers are PTI-compliant.

“I think we are another year or maybe two until we are close to 100%,” he said.

Proctor said she believes some produce shippers are waiting on more aggressive implementation of PTI until the Food and Drug Administration releases its record-keeping rule, part of the Food Safety Modernization Act measures.

Treacy said PTI committees are confident the initiative will meet those requirements for high-risk commodities.

While some shippers are waiting, others are not, Proctor said.

Grant said he doesn’t believe the food safety law requirements will have much of an effect on what PTI procedures companies have adopted.

“I think companies just need to move forward with it,” he said.

Proctor said Publix has been an early adopter of PTI, leading suppliers to follow the milestones. On the other hand, other buyers have not asked suppliers to provide PTI-compliant case labels, and that has caused some produce companies to put off implementation until the buyers tell them to move.

“They are not pushing hard with their suppliers now,” Grant said.

While there has been the occasional harsh letter from retailers to suppliers demanding compliance, Grant said that more retailers are working with their suppliers on PTI, sometimes in the form of traceability pilot projects.

On the buy side, some retailers say they want to make progress internally before they tell their suppliers, Proctor said.

Michael Agostini, senior director of produce merchandising for Wal Mart Stores, Inc., Bentonville, Ark., said in an e-mail that most all produce companies and buyers understand the importance of PTI and continue to work toward its goals. “This is success as long as we don’t let up.”

Garry Bergstrom, business development director produce/floral for Lakeland, Fla.-based Publix and a PTI leadership council member, said the retailer has started to scan inbound cases with Global Trade Item Number labels.

While Publix has not demanded that suppliers use PTI case labels, Bergstrom said many are providing-PTI compliant labels. Others are waiting for larger produce buyers to demand it.

He compares the PTI adoption to the Price Look-Up discussion in the late 1970s, when scanning of Universal Product Codes began and PLU labels were first applied to some fresh produce.

“There was quite a concern we were going to add all this cost to the products by putting UPC labels on products and putting PLU labels on apples, pears, nectarines, but once the industry realized it was a better way of doing business, more buyers demanded it,” Bergstrom said.