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    Why paper traceability isn’t good enough

    Hi, this is PMA PR Director Julia Stewart. In the recording that follows, Gary Fleming mentions that the Produce Traceability Initiative will track three pieces of information about each case of produce through the supply chain. After this recording was made, the PTI amended its plans, and decided that only two pieces of information were needed: the GTIN, and a lot number. As you listen to this, keep that in mind. You can find more information at www.producetraceability.org.


    Hello, this is PMA PR Director Julia Stewart and welcome back to PMA’s audio series, “Ask Dr. Bob Whitaker.” Joining us today is PMA Vice President for Technology and Standards, Gary Fleming. In fact, Gary will be joining us for the next several recordings, so that we can talk in depth about the Produce Traceability Initiative and its work to bring chain-wide, electronic traceability to the produce industry. Gary, thank you for being here.

    Before I ask you to talk about the initiative’s work, let’s talk about the industry’s current traceability capability. Everyone should already be able to trace product one step forward, and one step back, on paper – that was required by a bioterrorism law in 2002. Gary, please tell our listeners why being able to trace product on paper isn’t good enough, why we need to do more.

    Gary Fleming:

    Thanks, Julia, and hello to our listeners.

    You’re right, most in our industry already have basic traceability capability. As you noted, the Bioterrorism Act of 2002 requires every food company to be able to trace its products back one step, and forward one step. Everyone in our industry should be able to do this right now. And if you can’t, then you should know that you can be brought up on federal charges for failing to comply with the bioterrorism act.

    However, recent foodborne illness outbreaks have demonstrated that we need to be able to do better. We should want to do better first and foremost to better protect public health, to prevent further illness and potentially to even save lives – but doing it better can also help limit our losses in the event product does have to be recalled.

    You know, there was some talk during the recent Salmonella saintpaul foodborne illness outbreak that the federal government’s investigation was slowed down because the produce industry couldn’t trace back its product. That’s not entirely true, for the most part we could trace back product. (And I’m sure the folks who couldn’t will be dealt with accordingly by federal investigators.)

    Part of the problem was that the investigation was looking for the wrong product – but part of the problem was also that our industry members gave federal investigators a hodge podge of records they had to sift through to try to find a trail. They gave them paper records – that required investigators to sift through thousands of pages. And every company’s record keeping system was different, tracking different pieces of information, which added yet another level of complexity for the investigators. Right now, every member of the produce industry has their own, individual proprietary solution for tracing product one step forward, one step back. The information stored and method used can vary company by company. Multiply that times all the different companies that, say, handle tomatoes or even peppers, and you can imagine how difficult a job an investigative team would have.

    When lives – and livelihoods – may be at stake, that simply isn’t good enough. Consumers demand better, and regulators and legislators are demanding better. Keeping those records electronically can certainly help speed investigators’ traceback – and keeping records electronically that have common elements of information in them will speed it even more. Our industry has a lot at stake, it is in our best interests to take our traceability capability to the next level – or we may end up being required to do it by people who don’t understand our business.

    The Produce Traceability Initiative was founded in 2007 to bring some commonality to these systems – to weave through that common thread, if you will, by requiring three pieces of common information to follow every carton of produce through the supply chain. But I’ll stop there, because I understand we are going to talk more about those three pieces of information next time.


    Thank you, Gary, for that explanation of why our industry needs to take traceability to the next level – to chain-wide traceability, and electronic traceability. To find out more about PMA’s and the Produce Traceability Initiative’s work, visit PMA’s Web site at www.pma.com. Go to the “Member Resources” section, then to Technology and Standards, then to Traceability. (For those of you reading this transcript, the link is: http://www.pma.com/cig/tech/traceability.cfm.)

    To our listeners, please join us next time, when I will talk to Gary about the solution that the Produce Traceability Initiative has developed to help us achieve that vision of chain-wide, electronic traceability – and where our listeners can get help to achieve their part. Until next time…!

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