Q. What do you think this joint effort on traceability will accomplish on the grand scale?
A: This North America initiative, first driven out of PMA, complements other efforts to get to global standards that are occurring in another stream.
The big issue for the industry now is, how do we do it? We have implementation standards, and a proven pilot; what we don’t have is a robust implementation around the industry.
On a grower/shipper/packer basis, traceability efforts depending on the size of operation and other factors are quite strong. That is internally on what the company controls. We need to foster more external traceability, when it leaves your part of the supply chain, so we are tracking product right from growth through delivery to consumer shelf.
Q: What must be done now to make this a reality?
A: How do we move it through the supply chain? That’s really what the focus should be.
Process is a good word to use. Examination of individual company processes to start.
What do I need to change or enhance to play my role in the supply chain? At a very high level, if any organization is looking at traceability, who is responsible? There needs to be a traceability team, or a team of one depending on the size of the organization.
Then you determine an efficacious approach in your traceability that doesn’t impede business or result in too great a financial impact. The best means for capturing data are electronic scanning through bar codes or via RFID, where there are certainly significant costs involved, but also great opportunities.
It doesn’t mean you have to do RFID; you can do it with pencil and paper. There are tools around traceability, and cost/benefit analyses need to be done to assess short term and long term scenarios. You have to look at supply chain partners, what are they doing. Then look at the distribution side, putting a tremendous focus on determining best means for capturing and storing and sharing information efficiently.
With that knowledge emerges a whole new set of questions about how to implement without it becoming tremendously burdensome.
Everyone within your supply chain has to be in the same system; if shipping into Wal-Mart, the retailer will probably want you considering RFID. Typically a grower/packer/shipper is dealing with multiple retailers and probably food service too.
You have to know who your clients are and what they’re using. If shipping multiple businesses, you can do a combination of technologies. The industry has to decide the best methods.
Q: Is the goal a centralized data base?
A: The notion of centralized data base is one means to capture information, but you don’t need that to capture information and share it along the supply chain. If you look at what traceability solutions exist, they are all private solutions, and often there is a centralized data base that can be accessed.
The key to any solution is that information that is necessary to track and trace is moving through the system and is accessible in case of an incident. Everyone has a role to play; unless everyone participates, the industry will never have true traceability.
Q: What is true traceability? Aren’t there barriers inherent in the produce industry that makes such a phrase a bit unrealistic?
A: At the end of the day, the goal is that everyone is capturing the necessary information, one up, one down, and everyone knows where it came from and where it went.
But the industry can’t create false perceptions on consumer traceability. There is limited traceability as you get into bulk formats — not that it can’t be done, but it would be very costly.
Q: Are you talking about GS1 DataBar (formerly RSS)?
A: DataBar is a traceability component. If implemented, at least you know the brand owner as opposed to the current situation of whether it’s a banana. It’s not a full blown traceability enabler. You can narrow the scope. You need to get down to just that one lot number and get more specific from there.
The definition of true traceability is up for debate. One must grapple with the level of traceability the industry wants. For the grower/packer/shipper, how much burden do they want to bear, and it can be a tremendous burden.
What does implementation mean? There is obviously interest in looking at a centralized data base, or is it that we adhere strictly to a standard?
We have our guide to traceability implementation, and you can definitely succeed if you follow that. People are scared to a certain degree, but a portion of the industry has invested in very robust traceability.
Linking everyone together is one component, but it also is about making a business decision of how to implement between your four walls. Do you want to start scanning data or shipping information via electronic means and will that be sufficient for your needs or should you move towards RFID.
These decisions are really based around standard guidelines that already exist. The issue now is determining the best means to provide the biggest bang for the most traceability without paralyzing the industry.
Q: When you say people are scared to a certain degree, it might be because discussions, workshops and published papers on the technologies can often be daunting in their complexity and detail.
A: You hit the nail on the head. Some view traceability implementation as systemic, difficult and costly. In the produce industry, there is a concern, what if I embrace RFID and the next big thing comes out; no one wants to be on the bleeding edge. There are those intrepid souls who step up to the plate. The produce industry doesn’t tend to change as rapidly as many other industries.
Regardless of the means of implementing from the technology perspective, whether scanning, using RFID or a national data base, it is the core data that stays constant.
Q: And that standard for getting the data will remain constant as well?
A: The standard that exists goes back to input, seed fertilizers. There are already suppliers who can tell you that level of detail. The industry needs to determine how far back to go, but I don’t believe the standard will change, or if it does ever so slightly.
Look at the beef industry. It is crucial where feed came from. Is that a critical piece for us? Many in the produce industry will say yes.
The standard is solid. The data is one of the key pieces of the standard. Maybe practices will change. The standards document has been vetted by international experts. A tremendous amount of expertise has gone into the standard on a global level.
Q: How did United become involved in the Joint Produce Traceability Initiative?
A: From our association point of view, for almost a year now several board members brought up levels of anxiety on how slow the industry was to embrace traceability. Our organization hadn’t been as directly involved as PMA and CPMA, while we were supportive behind scenes.
A traceability road map has been outlined but is not being embraced and we need to drive it. We talked with PMA and Bryan and some of his board members about it and planned to move forward. The most motivating factor was Bruce Peterson and his strong impassioned plea that we need to do this.
We put together a meeting in our office. Bruce and Mike McCartney, Bryan, Kathy Means and Gary Fleming from the PMA staff, and our staff, Robert Guenther, David Gombas and Amy Philpott, spent the afternoon brainstorming what we do now to make a difference. Do we need to invent new technologies, what are the impediments, etc.
Q: What answers did you come up with?
A: What I hope will be different moving forward is this: everyone involved worked hard on these answers until now, and we don’t count ourselves in front on that. I almost look at this stage like the second half of a football game. Everyone’s taken a breather, and is reinvigorated, motivated and coming back with a strong sense of urgency.
Bruce has been an eloquent spokesperson of that point of view for renewed commitment from the industry boards, and also from retail and food service folks. Get out there and figure out how to drive traceability forward.
Some of the things I’ve heard to halt progress relate to the complexity of the technology. The technology is there. I don’t want to be facetious; if you keep your records on 3x5 index cards in a shoe box, obviously that’s not the answer, but there are ways to do this that aren’t high tech. It’s the discipline that it takes, it’s a business drive, and you do have to change the way you do business. We’ve heard this kind of complaint a lot on food safety, ‘gosh, before I didn’t have to do that in the field or the packing house or the processing plant, and the same is true on traceability, I didn’t used to keep track as carefully on product origins through the supply chain.
We are going to try and push hard and strong and get people to take traceability seriously.
This initiative is not a guide book.
Q: In what ways?
A: Industry leaders from each sector of business, 20 to 25 or so will serve as a guiding force for this; people like Bruce Peterson but from all sectors of the industry. We’ll probably get those people appointed soon after the PMA convention and try to have a meeting by the end of the year. We decided not to rush this piece to be sure to get the right people. By making the announcement at the PMA, we may learn of more people that have passion and want to be involved.
We can look at tweaking the tools and standards PMA published, but more important is focusing on industry action and implementation. How do we get people to start doing this? There’s a host of things we can do, starting with finding people actually doing traceability well and holding up their programs as case studies and models. When you see someone doing something right, you put a spot light on it. The complexity alone may be off-putting. Maybe we have to find a way to simplify the process.
Q: How important a role do buyers play in this scenario?
A: Retailers have business practices they must be willing to change as well. If it all falls apart at the distribution center, what’s the incentive for the supplier? Traceability in food service creates its own issues. If a food outbreak occurs, there’s not an immediate way to know if product from that farm went to other distributors and retailers. Very rarely would you have product from one shipper going to one restaurant chain. The idea that the Taco Bell outbreak didn’t affect other restaurants is unusual. When raw product is going to multiple channels, that’s where trace forward becomes much more critical.
In the spinach outbreak a year ago, they knew in a reasonable time the bag of spinach and lot code and could trace back to the afternoon it shipped at that one processing plant. They knew it came from one of four farms. We didn’t know if that product had gone to other distributors and farms. Trace forward is where traceability broke down. Food service is a good place to start in this regard. Like every initiative, we want to push it through. The real testament will be if we can put legs on it and not let it be a book on a shelf.
Q: In the context of food safety, traceability has always been your mantra. It wasn’t surprising when last spring you formed a venture with Mike McCartney of QLM Consulting to establish a global traceability strategy.
It appears your vision is starting to become a reality. PMA, CPMA and United Fresh announced plans to form a joint Produce Traceability Initiative to drive broad adoption of consistent traceability best practices throughout the produce supply chain.
How did this come about? I know you can be quite determined in advocating causes you believe to be important. At the same time, you have been adamant about the need for a collaborative effort directed through the leading industry organizations.
A: I don’t know if I could be so bold to say I was behind it, but Mike and I were working behind the scenes to effect change, and I’ve definitely been pushing buttons to make it happen. I wasn’t saying a lot about it publicly because it wouldn’t be appropriate. It’s a global industry initiative impacting the entire supply chain that must be pursued under the umbrella of the major organizations representing industry members, and therefore important that news be released collaboratively.
Q: True to your personality, you’ve pulled no punches in arguing the industry had veered off course.
A: There is certainly some additional work Mike and I could have done if I stayed a consultant, and Mike is continuing to do particularly as it relates to the shippers and growers. But the overall message we wanted to drive home and resonate was that the industry was missing the boat. You have to create an international agenda with traceability at the forefront. The real key was getting industry leaders off the dime.
Q: But there are more than a few prominent retailers, food service operators and suppliers who have been committed to building their traceability programs. From an industry standpoint, there has been intensive work at PMA in advancing traceability technology and global standards.
A: PMA has done a lot of work centered primarily on technology. The problem is that traceability has become too closely linked with technology. Technology is certainly an enabler, and ultimately these sophisticated technologies being researched and developed are where things will evolve. People don’t understand how important the process is in traceability.
Mike and I could have done nice work pulling people together for a traceability task force. But what has transpired is not a task force, it’s the real deal. The most important thing for this industry was to get cranked up on this issue under the auspices of trade associations.
PMA, CPMA and United announced the formation of a produce industry traceability initiative. Bryan Silbermann will be talking about this in his state of the industry address at PMA. Mike and I will have discussions with PMA shippers and growers and Mike will be doing work on traceabilty in the supplier network.
Q: How will the initiative actually work within the context of existing technology?
A: The whole traceability program comes down to different buckets.
Number one: How do you identify what you want to manage? About 40 percent of product moving through shelves is in bags or packages, so there is no problem there because of UPC codes. Some companies are moving to GS-1 technology for individual produce items. New technology doesn’t matter in the short term here because there is already one to one correlation between a bag or clamshell and barcode. That works out just fine.
Number two: You have to have homogeneous record-keeping. I see political ramifications here. One of the regulatory agencies — USDA or FDA — has to say if you are a producer these are things you have to have. Not only that, receivers, whether food service operator or retailer, these are the things you have to keep. The retailers may have other specifics, but you must have the minimum foundation of record keeping. This can also be done in the short term.
The third piece of work is where the traceability piece is starting to break down. Kroger will say, we have traceability worked out, and Wal-Mart says the same thing, but the programs are completely different. We need receivers to do compatible programs in order to get a nationwide data bank people can tap into.
Tim Hammond, who I know very well at FMI, has gotten into this situation. PMA, United and CPMA will do the heavy lifting. He just needs his membership to sign on to it.
PMA has done marvelous work in respect to traceability standards and processes. In many ways the issue has been coordinating efforts at the receiver end. If you have a burning platform but can’t bring all the players into the fold, it can make you want to throw up your hands and give up. The food service supply side has been highly receptive to a homogenous plan so that’s a good starting place.
Q: What happens from here? What outcome do you hope to achieve?
A: Success looks like this: There are minimum standards regulated for record keeping.
Second, acknowledgment from receivers that they will accept this level of technology to get out this information. People adopting things like GTINS and other technologies will happen, but I don’t want to overemphasize that. Once these other platforms are in place, the technology part will happen. The trickiest technology piece is how do you identify those very small items, such as bulk jalapeno peppers?
GS-1 can be used on big fruits and vegetables, but you might ultimately see small bulk displays of items in the future. Maybe there is a solution but we haven’t figured it out yet, perhaps something with PLU numbers you can connect. My opinion is the industry will change from bulk selling. All this other stuff is doable within 18 months.
Q: You’ve always been a strong proponent of GS-1 technology. Is it set up for wide use?
A: GS-1 is out there. It’s an easy thing to implement with one caveat. You have to have a reader to be able to access the information. Most of the big retailers have modified systems to have it happen. You don’t need to bring in all new equipment, but you have to make changes to read that smaller barcode. I first thought RFID would come around and supersede GS-1, which was a concern for me. Now I believe GS-1 at the unit level will be used to complement RFID for the next 20 years. Ultimately I think RFID is the way to go longer term.
The problem is people are all hung up on technology. It tunes the brain out to progressing in traceability. This initiative starts off with record-keeping. The discussion with PMA/United merger had to be settled, but now traceability can take precedence.
Q: PMA has been at the heart of masterminding traceability guidelines, standards and technology advancements for quite some time. It also has published and disseminated this information to the industry for implementation. Yet a seamless traceability system throughout the supply chain still evades the produce industry. What makes this initiative different?
A: Let me start with Traceability Chronology 101. In 2002, PMA and CPMA created a joint traceability taskforce. Steve Junqueiro of SaveMart and Doug Grant of Oppenheimer headed the effort. As part of that, a study co-funded by PMA and CPMA looked at traceability practices and came up with recommendations and guidelines, first published in summer 2004. Subsequently they were revised in a second edition published in October 2006. That’s the work done on traceability guidelines available to the industry free of charge through PMA and CPMA websites, taught in workshops, etc.
Go back a year from now, 13 months ago with the spinach outbreak, and other outbreaks at the end of last year, and concerns were being expressed on traceability. Originally, the major thrust on traceability was on efficiencies, best practices, category management, keeping in stock. There wasn’t as much focus on food safety. The hot button was more about effectiveness of the supply chain.
Now the food safety component looms; certainly it was an issue in the spinach outbreak not so far as tracing back, but rather in tracing forward. FDA was able to know where bags in question had come from but they weren’t able to definitively say where product grown in those fields had gone. They figured out all various bags came from this processing plant, but in going back to farm, did this product end up in different places. Traceability has to go in two directions.
Government officials after the spinach crisis and subsequent outbreaks in November and December did feel the industry traceability was A: not fast enough and B: not comprehensive enough. We’ve been having these discussions since last November.
Q: So it’s the disjointed system that needs work, but the existing technology is sufficient?
A: There is no snake oil technology. We’re talking about the same guidelines. Those can be implemented with all the existing technology on packages and pallets. That will do well. It doesn’t take a new pie in the sky concept.
The information has to be captured and stored as the product moves down the supply chain. For example, if I give you an Easy Pass for your car, your car can be identified, but if you go through a toll booth in NYC that doesn’t read the pass, what’s the point?
Ideally what you want is data captured as product moves down stream. That’s Point A. The technology exists. The problem is that from surveys we’ve done, we know practices used in grocery are not being applied in most of produce shippers operations. What this produce initiative is all about is highlighting existing technologies and standards that are there.
Point B is coming up with an action plan to get the industry to adopt as quickly as possible. This is as much an issue for buyers as suppliers. This will not be effective unless everyone is a part of it.
That’s why we’ve got retail associations involved. This initiative has to have leaders from all parts of the industry. We already have leaders — shippers, distributors, and retailers — who have expressed interest.
There really needs to be a call to action for the whole industry. That’s what we intend to do.
Q: Can you take us through the specific steps so companies can be proactive in doing their part.
A: Specifically there are three key points and I will outline the basic steps in my speech at the show. I’ll leave your readers with some suspense…
Traceability is crucial because it limits both the actual and reputational damage of any food safety problem. If we can quickly narrow the impact of a problem by identifying where the product is, neither consumers nor regulators will be very concerned over isolated problems.
Traceability is both very easy and very difficult. As a judge in PMA’s packaging contest, we got to see some of the latest and greatest in traceability technology. Many different mechanisms and most were terrific — provided your produce was put in a clamshell or bag and sold that way to the consumer.
If you were selling to a tomato repacker, however, all these devices would find their way to the dumpster along with the shipping containers and thus would be of no use.
We find Bruce Peterson’s comment intriguing when he says that “My opinion is the industry will change from bulk selling.”
Right or wrong, Bruce is speaking to this point: If traceability is mandatory — and it is, both by law and business necessity — we need to change focus a bit. We have been trying to graft traceability on existing produce industry practices.
We may be approaching the day when we have to say that if an industry practice is not conducive to traceability, it has to stop.
Many thanks to Jane, Tom, Bruce and Bryan for working together so effectively and for sharing this information with the trade.
We are going to need people to step forward on this important industry initiative.
A special congratulations to Bruce Peterson as he has retired from consulting to assume the Presidency at Naturipe. His consulting career, though short, was obviously impactful.