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Guest Pundit: Traceability — A Forgotten Piece Of Food Safety

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, April 12, 2007

Here at the Pundit we’ve paid close attention to issues surrounding traceability. To help with understanding this complex issue, we have asked Gary Fleming, Vice President, Industry Technology and Standards for the Produce Marketing Association, to contribute to industry understanding on this important issue.

First, in Guest Pundit — Traceability And the Need For A Common Language, Gary explained the crucial role that data standards play in any industry-wide effort to establish trace-back capability. Then, in Guest Pundit — Pairing The Global Language With Technology, he helped us understand how we could actually make this happen.

Gary has been kind enough to bring us another Guest Pundit focused on some findings he made during a trip to Argentina. It comes as a shock to most Americans, but quite often shippers in other countries are ahead of many U.S. shippers because these shippers often have to meet stringent requirements in order to be able to export. Here is Gary’s take on what he found to be a practical traceability system used in Argentina:

Gary Fleming
Vice President,
Industry Technology and Standards
Produce Marketing Association

I do not believe I need to take a poll of the produce industry to determine what the “hot button” for this industry currently is: food safety. What seems to be forgotten, however, is that food safety has two primary pieces: food-borne illness prevention and traceability. A lot of attention and money has rightfully been on the prevention side. Also important is the ability to trace product movement in a manner that can limit the scope of a food-safety problem.

When PMA and CPMA created a best practices document on traceability more than two years ago, participants of the pilot initially thought that they had an effective traceability system. However, a key finding of the pilot showed that while they had something efficient within their own four walls, the system broke down when it left their facilities. In order for traceability to work effectively, we need the ability to quickly identify the product, locate the source, determine the amount of implicated product, determine which shipments contained the implicated product, and get notice to those who received the implicated product — all within hours.

Many companies in our industry claim to be able to trace product, but can it be done as quickly and as thoroughly as necessary? I believe the case has already been made in our industry to strongly urge companies to have a traceability system that allows for a rapid recall. I also believe every company would like to narrow the implicated product to “cases of products” versus “shipments of products” or total product recalls.

I recently took a trip to Argentina to visit several companies that use a solution which meets a loose definition of “effective traceability.” I was admittedly apprehensive due to the number of phone calls I have received since the E. coli spinach crisis from vendors claiming to have an effective traceability system. Nonetheless, when one particular vendor contacted me, their approach seemed more practical than others I had heard about and seemed to be compatible with the systems of most growers/shippers. Off to Buenos Aires, Argentina, I went.

During my trip, I visited two growers/shippers/packers, five pack houses, one laboratory, and one government agency (I also managed to eat in classic Argentine style every night after 10 p.m., which is considered to be an early dinner to Argentines). One grower, EXPOFRUT, primarily grows and packs apples, pears, onions, grapes and citrus. The other grower, Kleppe, primarily grows and packs apples and pears. While not dependent on advanced technologies, both operations used the same vendor. The vendor, FQ Code, incorporates the use of both barcodes and, surprisingly enough, RFID, along with some paper-based processes where electricity is not available in the fields. This is just one example of how effective traceability can work.

As is normal for most growers, lot and field information is recorded on paper, along with packing crew, pick date and other information. Once the truck carrying the bins arrives at the yard, this information is keyed into a system. Barcodes with unique serial numbers are then printed and placed on each bin. Meanwhile, the keyed information along with the associated barcode number is sent to the packing house. Once the product arrives to be washed, a barcode is read. Product is then verified and dumped into the wash cycle. The information retrieved from the barcode being read notifies the system that product from a specific lot and field has now entered the wash cycle and not mixed with other lots.

The product moves through the wash cycle and then through sizing and sorting lanes. After the fruit is sized, it moves through the process to individual packing lines. Once the product reaches the packer, the system automatically knows the lot and field number from which the product originated. Packers wear badges around their necks that are embedded with an RFID tag. The packer moves by the RFID reader to let the system know that he/she will be packing product arriving from the lot and field number currently in the system. Once the packer packs a case of the product, a barcode is printed and affixed to the case.

The barcode now has information on not only where the product came from, but when it was packed and by whom it was packed. Consequently, in both operations, this process also helps manage productivity of each packer. Once the case arrives at the end of the process and is stacked on a pallet, the barcodes on each case are read and linked to a pallet number. Once the pallet is completed, a barcode is printed and affixed to the pallet that uniquely identifies that pallet and each and every case on that pallet.

Now that we understand the process, let’s look at what they are able to do. The information captured by case and by pallet is made available via the web. Once logged onto the web, one can reference the number on the case which is a combination of a GTIN and a serial number (the very same premise used by RFID for tracking). This number is entered into the system and immediately locates the number of cases packed on the same date, from the same field, from the same lot, from the same packing lane, and from the same packer. This helps the grower/packer narrow the possible areas of infection and quarantine these areas. It will also immediately alert the grower/packer as to who shipped the product and when it was shipped. All of this can be done in a matter of minutes.

True traceability is the accurate generation and recording of a product’s history, including all processes that transport or transform it. This includes not only routine movement like packing, but the mixing of lots, re-palletizing of cases, and even products combined in food preparation. It is used not only in growing and packing but in the distribution end as well, where cases can be reconfigured to form pallets (an activity where most traceability systems break down). The application mentioned above captures and maintains that data in the form of unique serial numbers which enables a rapid pinpointing of an affected product in case of a recall.

FQ Code’s process has been in place for several years at both operations. One recall was narrowed to only 13 cases of product, versus over 70 bins of product normally harvested from that particular field. It took the cooperation of the Argentine government, an appointed group (FunBaPa), industry and FQ Code to figure this out, but for them, it has not only assured an effective, rapid traceability system, but was the answer to a major roadblock from exporting their fruit to Brazil. In 2002, Argentine exporters of fruit to Brazil were suddenly closed out of that market due to product infestation. This led to the development and adoption of rigorous traceability standards of the type now in existence in Argentina. These standards have become instrumental in Argentina’s exports to both Brazil and Europe. Since that time as well, government and industry have cooperated to develop and administer traceability standards. FunBaPa administers those standards.

The lesson learned for the industry is that we must be certain that when we claim to have a traceability system, that the “system” can be used by the entire industry. This naturally begs for standards, which is the cornerstone for identifying products. How can we expect to have a fast, effective traceability system when we all have a different number used to identify the case in question?

Let’s take a simple lesson from the packaged goods industry. They have a number on a product, called a UPC. When anyone needs to reference that item, they look at the number on the product and call the supplier. It really can be that simple in produce as well. We have the standards available. We have the technologies available. We just have to begin using them.

The Pundit had the opportunity to learn a little about this system as FQ Code exhibited at Fruit Logistica in Germany right next to PerishablePundit.com. It was an impressive system because it was practical and didn’t rely on idiosyncratic standards. Gary’s first-hand experience in Argentina adds a lot of weight to the idea that companies should be looking into this system.

It is more than worth spending a few minutes exploring their web site right here. Click on the flag of the country you work out of and learn more about how the system works.

The Pundit, like PMA, gets plenty of calls from people claiming to have traceability systems that can help the industry. Most, however, are impractical or require that everyone buy into a particular producer’s proprietary system. This one seems to avoid these pitfalls.

Normally PMA — and the Pundit — would avoid drawing attention to any particular private system. However traceability is an important component of a food safety system, and we urgently need to move ahead in this area.

We need systems, as Gary explains, that can be used by the whole industry. Maybe other existing systems can do this as well and maybe others will create new systems that can do it. But this system, here now and functioning in Argentina, is certainly a fine place to start.

Many thanks to Gary and to PMA for the legwork in Argentina and for sharing these thoughts with us today.

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