The Produce Traceability Initiative was launched in 2009 as the produce industry’s response to ever-increasing recalls beginning with the spinach recall in 2006.
The first milestone was scheduled for completion in 2009 and the final milestone by the end of 2012. After three years of hard work by the sponsoring trade associations and industry leaders, where are we with the PTI?
The majority of the produce industry agrees on some fundamental truths:
- We need to do more in the way of foodborne illness prevention (i.e., food safety);
- We cannot test every piece of produce that comes out of the field (i.e., the need for traceability); and
- We need a more efficient way to track and trace tainted product that slips through our food safety nets (i.e. further need for traceability).
Unfortunately, most companies’ position remains, “we will not do anything until we are forced to do it by either our buyers or the government.” Let’s take a critical look at those two groups.
Where are the buyers with PTI? A handful of large buyers have stepped up to the plate and are requiring PTI-compliance from their suppliers (see the PTI website at www.producetraceability.org).
The remaining retailers have either not yet formulated a stance on PTI or are still finalizing their plans.
Other fresh food sectors’ traceability initiatives (e.g., meat, poultry, seafood, dairy/deli/bakery, and foodservice) share the same standards, the same key elements, and largely the same processes as PTI.
This means that the changes retailers are making for produce can be leveraged uniformly across all fresh food sectors, giving retailers an extra push to make the necessary changes.
The retailer momentum has begun, but has been moving at a slow pace. If more buyers required PTI, food safety issues like the cantaloupe outbreak of this summer could have been better contained.
Where is the government with the PTI? The FDA conducted its traceability pilots in the first quarter of 2012.
Recommendations stemming from those successful pilots were delivered to the FDA in June.
We are now awaiting the draft regulations from the FDA based upon those findings. Given that a different solution could cause more delays and expense, and that the current PTI process has been shown to work across all fresh food sectors, it would seem that the PTI is here to stay.
While we can’t predict with certainty what the new regulations will be, Mike Taylor from the FDA has already announced that their regulations will build on what the industry has done.
Government regulation in the form of the Food Safety Modernization Act is on its way. It’s now just a matter of time.
The sooner the FDA publishes and enforces its regulations, the sooner the public will be protected against prolonged searches for the source of contaminated food.
It’s not just up to the buyers and the government, though.
There’s a third group that can influence the implementation of PTI: us, the produce community at large.
We are educated — most growers have heard of PTI and are fairly well informed.
And we are accountable — lawyers are now starting to target growers, distributors and buyers in food recalls, citing negligence in addition to strict liability.
With the health and wellness of consumers in our hands, are we willing to stick our heads in the sand and delay implementing a proven solution to make things better?
Three years ago, the industry decided it was important enough to come together and put PTI in place by 2012.
Our initial needs and reasons haven’t changed.
What we need to do now is keep the momentum going and see the initiative through.
Ultimately, this won’t happen until either retailers require it or the FDA mandates it.
It is up to us to keep the pressure on both groups and push for a safer, more traceable produce supply chain.
Gary Fleming is vice president of strategic services for RedLine Solutions, Santa Clara, Calif.