(July 7, 3:50 p.m.) The Produce Traceability Initiative is moving closer to establishing implementation dates for case-level traceability standards.

“We need to move fast on this, especially in light of the tomato situation,” said Gary Fleming, vice president of industry technology and standards for the Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association.

A Salmonella Saintpaul outbreak linked to fresh tomatoes has sickened more than 850 people in 36 states and Washington, D.C., since early April. The Food and Drug Administration has expressed frustration about the difficulty of tracing bulk produce sold without bar codes.

The initiative — a joint effort of PMA, the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association and the Ottawa-based Canadian Produce Marketing Association — is trying to establish implementation dates for case-level traceability with plans to later address item-level traceability.

The group has more than 50 companies, including distributors, grower-shippers and retailers.

Fleming said the initiative likely will have a traceability guidance document available to the industry before its Aug. 27 meeting in Chicago. He said it will provide step-by-step directions about what companies need to do. He also said the draft will be an improvement on a traceability document previously released by PMA and CPMA that focused largely on best practices.

Fleming said during the August meeting the group will discuss what sort of public declaration companies will make to let consumers and buyers know they are participating in the effort.

He said some companies participating in the initiative have indicated they could have case-level traceability systems in place within six months, but others said it could take years.

Fleming said there were no cost estimates yet for implementation, but it will vary based on the size of a company.

“People are starting to get nervous,” he said. “Prior to (June 12) people were gung ho, but now it’s game time, and people are starting to get nervous because they have to do something.”

Fleming said the initiative plans to offer Web seminars and meetings to educate the industry about traceability. He said the group plans to meet with regional trade associations to deliver the message about how important the initiative is.

Timing could be critical for the industry to establish standards on its own terms. Consumers Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports, is asking Congress to mandate traceability systems and production and handling standards for high-risk produce items.

“We feel like we probably can come up with a better system because we know our business better than the government,” Fleming said. “We do want the support of the government because, in the event that it decides to mandate something, we’d want them to use the program we’ve already created rather than something entirely different.”

Consumers Union also is encouraging consumers though its Web site to urge their legislative representatives to increase FDA’s budget. The consumer group also is calling for increased product testing, increased inspection of imports, mandatory inspection and independent certification of foreign and domestic production facilities and mandatory recall authority for FDA.

The group also wants mandatory identification of companies that distribute products that have been recalled.