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Symbolon’s Fleming Sheds More Light On Traceability

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, April 12, 2010

Traceability has long been an area of focus for us here at the Pundit. Few have contributed more substantially to this discussion than Gary Fleming, when he was working in his capacity as the Vice President, Industry Technology and Standards for the Produce Marketing Association. In fact, Gary contributed to at least five articles related to Traceability when he was at PMA:

Guest Pundit — Traceability And The Need For A Common Language

Guest Pundit — Pairing The Global Language With Technology

Guest Pundit: Traceability — A Forgotten Piece Of Food Safety

Pundit’s Mailbag — Traceability

Pundit’s Mailbag — Joint Response To Produce Traceability Cost Concerns

After Gary established his own consultancy, the Symbolon Group, Gary undertook the task of attempting to help the industry think through the Produce Traceability Initiative by agreeing to write a series of three pieces.

The first, we titled, Gary Fleming Speaks Out: Produce Traceability Series Part 1:’Absent of PTI.’ Here we present Part II of the Series:

Key Traceability Projects in the Food Industry

In the first part of this three part series to the Pundit, I had discussed what would happen to whole-chain traceability “Absent the PTI” (Produce Traceability Initiative). In this second series, I will be discussing what is happening in other sectors in the food industry that could have impact on what your company is doing. First inclination may be to dismiss what is happening in other sectors; however, as it will affect the buying community, it may also have influence on the buying community, which will most likely have influence on the supplier community as well.

I want to approach this from both a buyer’s perspective and also a supplier’s. Let’s begin with each perspective and then move into the initiatives.

From a buyer’s perspective, some say that the produce category represents 8 — 12 % of their business. If this is true, some buyers say that it is difficult to make changes to systems and processes based upon something that will only serve this fraction of their business. The ultimate goal for a buyer, therefore, would be to make a change that would be universally acceptable across all of their product lines, not just produce.

From a supplier’s perspective, some supply both grocery retail and foodservice. If the supplier community were to make an investment to make changes to their systems and processes, their ultimate goal would be to ensure that both their grocery retail customers and their foodservice customers will accept the same standard. If there is more than one standard that a supplier will have to accommodate, it immediately means multiple inventories of the same product, labeled differently because of a specific customer or sector request that goes against the standard. The more differences, the more costly the equation becomes.

In meetings that took place at both FMI and GMA last year with key trade associations representing the food industry, the consensus was that the PTI model was the traceability model to emulate. As you will see, the initiatives below that are alive in the food industry have done exactly that.

GS1 Foodservice Standards Initiative

This initiative, led by GS1 US and endorsed by IFDA (International Foodservice Distributors Association), IFMA (International Foodservice Manufacturers Association), NRA (National Restaurant Association), GS1 Canada and 55 major foodservice manufacturers, distributors and operators, has emulated what the PTI has done, not only with their choice of standards, but also with closely aligned milestones and timelines. As one can easily determine, the standards used for this large foodservice initiative are the GS1 standards, the very same standards used by the PTI. The recommended case identification number used in this initiative, the GTIN (Global Trade Item Number), is the same number recommended by the PTI. In addition, the same barcode is being used (the GS1-128), the same number for a pallet is being used (i.e. SSCC when using the ASN), and the same key traceability element is used, the Lot/Batch number. The milestone to use the GTIN is consistent with milestone #4 and #5 of the PTI: the third quarter of this year. In fact, the foodservice initiative goes a step further in promoting the use of the GTIN on all business transactions (e.g. purchase orders, invoices, etc.).

This is good news for the supplier community. As if you are supplying product to both grocery retail and foodservice, then the standards used will be the same.

Meat and Poultry Traceability Guidelines

These guidelines were created by the mpXML group (i.e., meat and poultry group). This group originally started out as a group to work on XML standards (i.e., electronic commerce), but has morphed into a group that works on supply chain efficiencies and traceability for the meat and poultry sectors. Members of this group include manufacturers, processors, distributors, packers and buyers. Their recent release of their guidelines has also largely mirrored what the PTI has done.

They use the same standards as both the PTI and GS1 Foodservice Standards Initiative (i.e., GS1 standards); they use the same case identification number (i.e., the GTIN); they use the same barcode (i.e., the GS1-128 barcode); they use the same key traceability element (i.e. the Lot/Batch #), and they have the same recommendation regarding the use of the ASN (i.e., they use the SSCC number for the pallet).

This is good news for the buyer community, as changes can be made that would accommodate not only produce, but meat and poultry businesses as well.

Other Initiatives

The fish industry has begun a project to essentially mirror the initiatives above, having endorsed the use of GS1 standards and using Lot/Batch number as a key traceability component. Other sectors, while engaged in the initiatives above, have not begun any sector-specific projects. This is largely due to the fact that their buying customers are already part of the initiatives above.

What can be deciphered from these projects? They all use the same standards, which not only include the standard product identification numbers for case (i.e., GTIN) and pallet (i.e., SSCC), but also the same standard barcode (i.e., GS1-128), the same best practices around the use of the ASN, and the same basic traceability component (lot/batch #). These same principles apply to the entire food industry.

What standards are consumer packaged goods companies using: GS1 standards. What number are they using on their cases: the GTIN. What barcode are they using: the GS1-128 barcode. What number is needed for traceability: lot/batch number. What is the largest implemented standard in the world: GS1. Finally, what standard has the largest chance for acceptance around the world for both imports and exports: GS1.

Is it any wonder that at their recent PTI Steering Committee meeting held in Dallas on February 19th, the milestones and timelines were reaffirmed by those in attendance?

So when will those who do not want to believe start believing? What more is needed for companies to understand why the use of an industry standard is the only economical way for the industry to move?

It is certainly understandable why an individual company that is currently not using an industry standard would object, as it means cost to their operation to change. If we all opt to continue with our own proprietary solution, or think that having an internal traceability solution is enough, the food industry will be no better off than we have been in the past: every company doing the same thing different ways. In this scenario, the costs to do business will continue to unnecessarily increase due to inefficiencies, multiple inventories will need to be kept, multiple practices and processes will still abide, and the industry will not be able to help the FDA in their whole-chain traceback investigation. Remember, the FDA has to deal with multiple companies, having multiple standards, different numbers, different information, and they are the only entity in our industry that has to perform a traceback investigation from start to finish.

Remember that the consumer packaged goods industry as a whole was able to rally around one standard, one barcode, one case and one item identifier. They represent nearly 50% of a food buyer’s volume. So, it can be done.

The debate surrounding the Produce Traceability Initiative has acquired an almost surreal aura. There are a few individuals who have been willing to speak out against it as we demonstrated with these pieces:

Though Traceability Initiative Is A Big Win, Weak Links Still Exist

Is PTI Too Expensive And ‘Untenable’? A Retailer Speaks Out

Pundit’s Mailbag — Wholesaler’s Struggle With PTI And Real Life Situations

Is Produce Traceability Initiative Worth The Investment?

Yet in every official meeting of every industry group, there is virtual unanimity that PTI is a great idea.

Now part of the problem is that the industry has not yet found a good way to allow midsize and smaller companies to give voice to concerns. Most fear to speak out. They don’t want to be the face of resistance to higher standards.

Another dimension of the problem is that objecting basically requires calling the buyers who participate in these organizations liars — or at least not fully in control of the outcome.

After all, PTI or no PTI, if this standard is really going to be required to sell Wal-Mart, Kroger, Safeway and Supervalu on the retail side, plus Sysco, U.S. Foodservice, Pro*Act and Markon Cooperative on the foodservice side — just to name some of the bigger buyer names that have endorsed the PTI — then anyone who wants to sell mainstream retail and foodservice has to conform to the system.

So any mainstream vendor that is not moving in this direction is implicitly saying that they don’t believe that the buyers will constrain their supply chain to only PTI-complaint vendors. These vendors, through their actions, are saying that it is more important to keep costs down than to become PTI-compliant because, in the end, the buyers will go for price.

It is not an insane point of view and may be the strongest argument for government regulation — that such regulation can eliminate the non-compliant product from the market and thus remove the temptation to sell it and then to remove the market dynamic whereby retailers who would like to constrain their supply chain feel a competitive necessity to buy cheap product.

It is a quandary, especially for those of us hesitant to see more government regulation.

We appreciate Gary’s writing these pieces. The name of his consultancy, the Symbolon Group, shows he understands what this is all about.

A symbolon — which is a word derived from the Greek symbàllein — to join, put together or make whole — was a mechanism by which strangers could confirm one another’s identity.

Perhaps friends, lovers or conspirators agreed that a courier was going to be sent from one to the other to get valuable information or a confidential letter or some valuable goods. The two principals would cut in half some object such as a coin or a drawing. Then when one sent the courier, he would give the courier his half of the broken object. When the courier appeared he would present his half of the broken object and, if it fit, the other party could be assured that this was the authentic person to be delivered the message or goods.

The word symbolon, though, does more than describe a technique. It includes a notion of longing that the two parts somehow yearn to be reunited and made whole. For Gary Fleming, there is something more than technique in his proposals; there is passion, a belief that not only is PTI right, it is also technically beautiful.

This is as it should be. No less an eminence than Buckminster Fuller once said this about technical problems:

“When I am working on a problem, I never think about beauty. I think only how to solve the problem. But when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.”

Of course, that is just a more complicated way of saying what John Keats wrote in “Ode on a Grecian Urn”:

When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
”Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” — that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

It is not unexpected that a solution so technically beautiful should meet resistance. Emily Dickinson warned against expectation of rapid change in a short poem:

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant
By Emily Dickinson

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant — -
Success in Cirrcuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightening to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind — -

Our thanks to Gary Fleming and the Symbolon Group for helping us to see.

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