Tom LaGrasso says he doesn’t want his company to just tag along as the produce industry rolls out full compliance with the multi-stage Produce Traceability Initiative.

Rather, he wants Detroit-based wholesale distributor LaGrasso Bros. Inc. to be a leader in the effort.

“LaGrasso Bros. Inc. wants to be regarded as a leader in food safety for produce distribution in the Michigan market,” he said.


A starting point

In that vein, the company is engaged in a food safety program that is looking to reach all seven PTI milestones by next year, LaGrasso said.

“We want to set the benchmark, because food safety is critical in today’s business landscape and will continue to be so moving forward,” he said.

Full PTI compliance isn’t the end of the effort, though, he said.

It’s just a starting point. The company has been compliant with Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points since 1995.

“We have been ... excelling during our annual third-party food safety audits,” he said.

The next step after PTI compliance is meeting all Safe Quality Food certification requirements, LaGrasso said.

Having third-party safety audits on hand from growers and shippers is important because the company wants to know that all its suppliers meet all food-safety guidelines and maintain good growing practices, LaGrasso said.

He said his company has been aggressively pursuing food safety since software company ProducePro distributed a white paper article on PTI to its clients.

“We met with ProducePro’s team of consultants to assess how we would go from our current operation to PTIcompliant,” LaGrasso said.


Overhauling pallet builds

The first step was changing the layout of the company’s warehouse.

“We had the same items slotted in multiple locations and a majority of the picking was done by dolly,” he said.

LaGrasso Bros. altered the flow of the warehouse to use a program called “pallet build” in ProducePro.

“The software system takes all the orders for a route and organizes them into equal-sized pallets,” LaGrasso said. “Each pallet is then printed as a separate pick ticket, which directs the picker and their pallet in the most efficient way through the warehouse.

That allowed each pallet to be built according to weight and product size.

“We now have completed the renovations to the warehouse and have the new layout in place,” LaGrasso said.

The company conducted its first tests on the “pallet build” program late in the summer, and the tests quickly showed it had improved accuracy of picks and efficiency of order fills, LaGrasso said.

“We wanted to adopt ‘pallet build’ because it allows us to put a scan gun in the hand of each picker who will scan the GTIN (Global Trade Item Number) bar code on each case as they place it on the pallet,” he said.

A wrapped pallet is traceable from one end of the supply chain to the other, he said.

Scanning of outbound product, which is the last step to PTI compliance, is scheduled for 2013, he said.

“We had the building wired for radio frequency so the handheld computer scan guns could connect to our software system throughout our warehouse,” he said.


A competitive edge

LaGrasso said the system has improved inventory tracking.

“We cleaned up our product list by reducing duplicate product codes in preparation for our new warehouse layout,” he said.

The goal is to have GTIN bar codes on every case of product in our facility, “so that we can capture lot information on the inbound side, then scan each case on the outbound end to know exactly where each lot was shipped,” LaGrasso said.

Inbound product scanning began in September, LaGrasso said.

The food safety program is a way to give the company a boost in a “very competitive” Michigan market, LaGrasso said.

“We have a national customer that is looking for us to become PTI compliant,” he said.

Other companies have voiced the same preference, he said.

“If we can successfully partner with local growers it would help to improve food safety practices for the entire state having a positive effect beyond our customer reach,” LaGrasso said.

LaGrasso credits a number of suppliers for helping the company with its initiative.

“We could not have gotten this far without the help of our valuable suppliers Freshway, Basciani, Mother Earth Farms, Mastronardi, Produce Packaging, Greenline, Columbia Marketing International, Limoneira, and Sunkist, who have all taken the step to becoming PTI-compliant and having GTIN bar codes on their product,” he said.