Growers appear to be making steady progress in meeting the seventh and final milestone for the Produce Traceability Initiative that will become effective this year—they’ll have to read and store information on outbound cases.

Exact participation numbers were being compiled in February, but Dan Vache, vice president, supply chain management for United Fresh Produce Association in Washington, D.C., says, “From the supply side, it’s about where we expected it to be.”

The PTI is an attempt administered by Produce Marketing Association, United Fresh Produce Association, Canadian Produce Marketing Association and GS1 US to help develop a standardized industry approach to speed traceability.

In 2008, an industrywide steering committee set a series of specific time goals—or milestones—for launching various stages of a traceback program. If all goes according to plan, the program will enable any case of produce to be traced from grower to retailer this year.

The overall objective, Vache says, is to instill confidence in consumers that “when they go to a store, they buy what is healthy.”

Most growers already had their own traceability programs, he says. The purpose of the PTI is to put everyone on the same page with their traceback program by assigning Global Trade Item Numbers and a common traceback protocol.

PTI helps with quality, too

Borders Melons East of Adel, Ga., already had a traceback system in place when the company decided to sign on to the Produce Traceability Initiative, says Benny Ensley, general manager.

The company had to make a few modifications to adopt the standard label recommended by the PTI and assign Global Trade Item Numbers.

“It took a goodly amount of time to set it up,” Ensley says.

Now the company can trace back product from any of its 1,500 acres of watermelons “to wherever you want to trace it,” he says.

The company has used the system for quality control purposes, but fortunately has not had to implement any recalls.

The system was not terribly expensive because the company was already about two-thirds of the way there, Ensley says.

The system may have helped the company pull in slightly more business, but the time likely will come when such a system will be mandated before you can sell your product, he says.

Some buyers, especially large retailers, already require it, Ensley says.

Borders Melons East uses the HarvestMark system from Redwood City, Calif.-based Yotta- Mart and Ag-Ware software from ProWare Services LLC of Plant City.

Instilling worker, grower accountability

Strawberries from Wish Farms in Plant City, Fla., are PTI compliant, and the firm is prepared to launch the program for its other products, which include melons, bell peppers, chili peppers and berries, says president Gary Wishnatzki.

The company already had a patented system—Fresh QC from its VirtualOne software division—that tied together the caselevel and item-level traceability.

“We’ve gotten a lot of [return on investment] out of this system,” Wishnatzki says.

He doesn’t claim that he never has a quality issue, but he says, “At least now, when we do, we can trace it back with certainty to where the problem is coming from and hopefully correct the problem.”

The system costs pennies per label, but he says the payback comes from making workers accountable.

“That’s where it’s actually paying for itself in our situation,” Wishnatzki says.

When workers’ names are on the products they handle, “they tend to do a better job,” he says.

That sense of accountability also extends to the growers, who can log in and see comments specific to their farm.

“The payback is improved quality and lower rejection rate,” Wishnatzki says. “When you lower your rejection rate, you save a lot of money. You save a lot more than what traceability is costing.”

Wishnatzki says he launched a traceability program because it was the right thing to do, “but it didn’t take us long to figure out that the system was paying for itself.”

Being on the inside

Santa Paula, Calif.-based Calavo Growers Inc., however, had a different experience with implementing PTI and found it didn’t pay for itself.

The process helped modernize the company, instilled a sense of discipline and accountability, and enabled the firm to validate for its customers that it is offering a safe product. But that hasn’t made back its cost, says Rob Wedin, vice president, sales and fresh marketing.

“There are things in PTI that we’re required to do that that’s their primary and only usage,” he says.

The cost of the program was not excessive, Wedin says, “well under $100,000.”

The ongoing expense will be stickers and printing, says Mike Browne, vice president, fresh operations.

The cost to smaller companies likely would be much less on a per-package basis, he adds.

Calavo got a head start on PTI when representatives of the company’s information technology and operations departments began working on a database as part of the Produce- LLC consortium, Wedin says.

“That really helped prepare us to understand the depth of what we were going to have to go through,” he says.

“We’re ahead of the curve a little bit in that we started data bar labeling on our fruit in 2007,” Browne says. “The main thing we were concerned about was getting too far ahead and making mistakes that would cost us lot of money.”

The company wanted to be ahead just enough to accomplish the traceability goal of one step forward, one step back, Browne says, adding, “I believe we’re there.”

“It was a lot of work, but it was a group effort,” he says. “It was bringing all the different departments together.”

Although Calavo considered outside providers, the company decided to implement the system itself.

“We had the level of competency to do it—for now,” Browne says.

An investment, not a cost

“The challenge is, there’s some work and investment that has to be made,” Vache says, but he emphasizes the investment aspect rather the cost.

“If you look at it strictly as a cost, you’re missing part of the program,” he says. “Early adopters have found real advantages for their own internal systems.”

“There will be a tipping point,” Vache says, when major chains get behind the program and set a date by which their suppliers must comply.

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