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Problems Persist With PTI

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, April 27, 2010

We have been writing about traceability before traceability was cool.

Now the Produce Traceability Initiative seems to be somewhat stuck.

The problem, as we identified in our first piece on the subject, is two-fold:

1) Despite its many advantages, PTI does not actually solve the trade’s traceability problem. Completely aside from the fact that PTI is a case-based system and we sell consumers items outside of the case, it is clear PTI won’t solve the problem on cases. We’ve run before a story sent to us by an industry wholesaler about the reality of traceability and it is worth running again:

Putting in a system to trace product gets more difficult the further down we go in the distribution chain. Stand on the floor on a busy Terminal Market and try and imagine where the product goes after it is sold by the Wholesaler. A customer known as “Ken, the guy with Red truck” pays cash for a pallet of tomatoes. He takes the tomatoes to his garage where the boxes sit on the floor next to cleaning supplies, motor oil, and who know what else.

He and his kids (2 of whom just used the toilet without washing their hands) dump the tomatoes on a dirty tarp to sort them for color. The green ones sit in the garage for a few days to color up during which time one or two rodents snack on tomatoes. When they finally ripen, Ken delivers the tomatoes to some of the finest restaurants in town for all of us to enjoy.

Somehow I don’t think that Ken or even a legitimate small wholesaler or purveyor is interested in investing in a traceability system. They will have to be dragged kicking and screaming to the table. The problem is that the system is only as good as its weakest link, and unless Ken is a part of the system it doesn’t work.

2) The whole process with its elaborate stages was troubling to begin with because it put the grower-shippers ahead of the buyers. This was problematic. The truth is all that had to happen for PTI to become standard was for the buyers who signed onto the initiative to announce on what date they would no longer procure produce that didn’t conform to PTI and then demonstrate they were spending the money to be PTI-compliant themselves. Unfortunately, more than one buyer told this Pundit that they felt compelled to endorse PTI for political reasons. That didn’t mean they were actually going to spend the money to implement it.

In fact, in many organizations, it would be difficult to get the money. How does a Produce VP go before the board and request this money? It is not legally required and it would be difficult to demonstrate a Return On Investment.

Shippers know what is going on. Some have moved ahead… Paramount Citrus was very vocal at United that the company and its sister companies, Paramount Farms and POM Wonderful, were spending the money to become fully PTI-compliant because “it is the right thing to do.” But many, many shippers are holding off, waiting for evidence that the receivers are actually going to do this.

There is lots of talk of postponing the implementation date, perhaps asking shippers to be compliant three months before the receivers, although others point out that the trade spent a year deciding this was the best course — and nothing has changed to change that decision.

It is easy to see this situation as one simply requiring leadership to insist on the trade seeing through its plan.

But it is also true that this whole episode has revealed a tremendous flaw in the way our associations are interacting with the membership.

It wasn’t too long ago that the associations simply didn’t have the depth of staff and expertise they have today. So, at that time, it was necessary for association staffs to ask the trade what they wanted to do about a problem.

Now the associations have a lot of expertise, so they often lay out the solution all on their own.

Gary Fleming, then of PMA, practically laid out the whole PTI before the initiative existed. Look at these pieces he wrote for the Pundit:

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

The problem with this model is it becomes difficult for individual companies to bring out their concerns. They just can’t risk having their trading partners identify them as recalcitrant on food safety or traceability.

They certainly can’t risk being left out on press releases endorsing initiatives that their associations are praising.

The bottom line is that it is not a condition of membership in any produce trade association that a company should have a PTI-complaint traceability system… which means that, believe it or not, PMA, United and CPMA are actually supposed to represent those opposed to PTI or unwilling to implement it as much as those who elect to implement it.

This issue is different than setting a standard for PLU codes. The industry can lay out that type of standard, and if someone doesn’t want to participate, they may find themselves outside the flow of commerce, but nobody thinks of that company as bad.

Here, there is an implication that companies choosing not to participate are bad companies, that they “cheap out” on food safety-related issues and don’t care if people get sick… or worse. That image may not compel the companies to participate, but it may compel them to pretend to participate. That may be the worst of all worlds.

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