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Safe and Sound


“Sweeping.” “Comprehensive.” “Transformative.” Those are the words used to describe the changes in food safety and traceability practices now facing the produce industry.

The much-anticipated Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), which was signed into law in 2011 by President Barack Obama, “is the most sweeping reform of our food safety laws in more than 70 years,” notes the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). “It aims to ensure the U.S. food supply is safe by shifting the focus from responding to contamination to preventing it.”

Industry organizations, including United Fresh Produce Association, in Washington, D.C., and the Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association (PMA), have been working closely with the FDA on the produce piece of FSMA. It will be “transformative in how the U.S. food safety regulatory network functions and will touch every segment of the produce business supply chain, from farm to fork,” notes PMA.

Both organizations, along with the Canadian Produce Marketing Association and GS1 US, have been equally involved in the Produce Traceability Initiative (PTI), a voluntary program offering a roadmap to the implementation of case-level electronic traceability in the produce industry.

While the specific requirements, implementation deadlines and enforcement of FSMA are as yet unknown, traceability is sure to be a critical component. As such, it’s expected that companies already PTI-compliant will have a leg-up.

“With PTI, we have the ground level covered,” says Ed Treacy, PMA’s VP of supply chain efficiencies, who believes FSMA regulations will support PTI practices. Treacy, along with GS1 US reps and United Fresh VP of Supply Chain Management Dan Vaché, serve as liaisons between PTI and the FDA, and have worked on pilot programs required by FSMA.

“PTI got started in 2007 because we recognized that we needed to do a better job of tracking the product between the store and the source,” he recalls. “Produce doesn’t follow a straight path. It can go through five to 10 stops before reaching the consumer.”

Through PTI, the industry collaborated on the development of standards focused on case labeling. A number of major supermarket chains, including Publix Super Markets Inc., Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Whole Foods Market, now request that their suppliers use a standard case label including GTIN, lot/batch#, voice pick code, and pack or sell-by date.

“We have 6 billion cases of produce moving in our supply chain in the U.S.,” notes Treacy. “Trying to get all of it labeled is no small feat. But we’re now [at] well over 50 percent of cases labeled.”

While implementing a traceability program may be daunting to some, early adopters have experienced additional and unexpected benefits, as in the case of Austin, Texas-based Whole Foods. “They took a unique approach, and have used the PTI label to communicate with consumers at point of sale,” explains Treacy.

Whole Foods has linked its barcodes to a supplier rating system that tells team members whether a particular case of produce has a “good,” “better,” “best” or “unrated” designation. A third-party company houses the data, which factor suppliers’ sustainability efforts and fair-work practices into the rating. Team members can scan the barcode and then communicate the ratings to customers via in-store signage.

“It’s a great approach,” adds Treacy. “Whole Foods really leveraged traceability.”

Bentonville, Ark.-based Walmart has also derived ancillary benefits from case-level traceability. “They have seen a measurable lift in product quality, because the label has a human-readable pack date, which allows them to rotate on pack date rather than receive date,” notes Treacy. Meanwhile, Lakeland, Fla.-based Publix reports greater supply chain efficiency and getting produce to sale faster.

While a number of supermarket chains have adopted PTI, so far suppliers have embraced the initiative in greater numbers.

Giumarra Cos., in Los Angeles, is one such PTI-compliant supplier that has made the investment in traceability.

“Traceability is an important step and a valuable tool for all companies to have in place, and I believe it will be mandatory moving forward, so the sooner companies implement, the better,” says Jim Heil, Giumarra’s director of quality assurance and project manager for traceability.

Five years ago, Giumarra took a discerning look at traceability. “We decided to get out in front of it,” says Heil, who is a PTI Committee member. “We saw value in it, and built systems to support traceability company-wide.”

The industry needs a common language for tracing products, asserts Heil. “Moving information is really going to be the key down the road, and electronic data will be a significant piece,” he adds.

California Giant Berry Farms, in Watsonville, Calif., is also PTI-compliant, and while VP of Marketing Cindy Jewell sees the value of traceability, she also notes the lack of critical mass adoption of PTI.

“We are in compliance with PTI, but I don’t know that it is still an industry-wide initiative,” she says. “We have not had any conversations with our trading partners about PTI for quite some time.”

Industry consolidation has hindered PTI adoption on the retail side, admits Vaché, of United Fresh. “When one retail chain buys another, their systems are often different. It’s a big expense to upgrade to one unified system, and that slowed the retail response to PTI.”

While Jewell says that California Giant Berry Farms’ investment in traceability has yielded multiple benefits, including confidence in its ability to pinpoint any potential problems, as well as connecting consumers to the farm where their specific purchase was harvested, she also notes that traceability is just one component of the company’s food safety program.

“We take food safety very seriously here and place most of our efforts on prevention that involves ongoing training and implementation of good agricultural practices,” explains Jewell. “We have our own food safety staff that conducts on-site training and in-house audits to reinforce the need for good practices and our third-party auditor.”

Awaiting FSMA

FDA is expected to release its FSMA final rule between August and October 2015, at which time supermarket retailers and suppliers alike will face new requirements and implementation deadlines.

“There’s a lot of nervousness,” observes Vaché, taking the industry’s pulse. “But because it’s been such an ongoing process, we’re confident that even when they release the rule, companies will have time to implement changes.”

Vaché and other industry experts have been working to provide the FDA with a comprehensive view of the produce industry landscape as it writes FSMA. “The most onerous aspect will be the recordkeeping,” Vaché predicts of the changes ahead.

“It’s going to take an investment, and if you’re doing business the way you did 20 years ago, it’s going to be more of an investment. Don’t wait until your trading partners ask you to be PTI-compliant, because it doesn’t happen overnight,” he cautions.

Technology Age

Traceability, technology and food safety are spurring significant change in the produce industry, but at the same time, it remains an industry with players of all sizes, with some better equipped to embrace change than others.

“Innovative programs such as the Produce Traceability Initiative are implementing positive changes that ensure food moves safely and efficiently through the supply chain with clear traceability,” says Todd Bernitt, director of foodservice at Eden Prairie, Minn.-based C.H. Robinson, a global third-party logistics provider. “The challenge lies in determining an industry-wide standard that is fair and manageable for companies and organizations of all sizes and scales in the fresh produce industry.”

While the produce business has obviously evolved from handshake deals made on the farm, Bernitt believes that traceability and the need for food safety best practices management have now created an unprecedented demand for technology in the industry.

“Produce has been late to the table with technology, compared to center store,” asserts Vaché, “but we’re getting there.”

Walter Ram, VP of food safety for Giumarra, agrees. “The industry has really evolved in the last 15 years, like no other time in history,” he says, pointing to traceability initiatives, scientific advancements and enhancements in communication as signs of progress.

“With FSMA coming up, most of us have already gotten the heavy lifting done,” adds Ram.

From agriculture drones to traceability tattoos on individual products, Vaché sees food safety causing a wave of technology in the produce industry.

“One of the most exciting developments is real-time monitoring (RTM),” he says. “Historically, produce was picked and put on a truck that travelled four days to get to the other end, and if something went wrong with the refrigeration unit, it all had to be thrown away.”

Now, with RTM devices, if the temperature in the truck goes out of range, everyone in the supply chain gets an alert. “When people embrace that type of technology, you see a reduction in claims, and quality is improved across the system,” he observes.

Safe Supply

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, approximately 48 million Americans are victims of foodborne illnesses annually, and costs associated with their medical care and lost income total more than $15 billion each year.

Well-publicized fatalities associated with fresh spinach in 2006 and cantaloupes in 2011 have further fueled concern among consumers regarding the safety of the food supply.

“I believe that our food supply is safe and gets safer every day,” asserts Treacy, who notes that several factors are driving the spate of reports of fresh produce linked to listeria and other food safety concerns.

“No. 1, we put ourselves in front of the press by killing five people with spinach and 33 with cantaloupe. Prior to 2006, many of these recent reports would have been back-page stories,” he says. “No. 2, our detection capabilities have gotten better and, in many cases, have been initiated by growers who are now conducting more stringent food safety testing.

“They’re testing to 0 percent tolerance,” adds Treacy “Ten years ago, not many companies were even testing for listeria.”

Because of their direct dealings with consumers, produce managers play a crucial role in communicating the safety of their stores’ products and practices.

“It’s critical that retail produce managers are educated and prepared to answer questions intelligently about every product in their department,” stresses Vaché. “They need to know who they buy from and how the produce got to the store, and they need to have that information at their fingertips so they can encourage the customer to shop with confidence.”

“Produce doesn’t follow a straight path. It can go through five to 10 stops before reaching the consumer.”
—Ed Treacy, Produce Marketing Association

“Produce has been late to the table with technology, compared to center store, but we’re getting there.”
—Dan Vaché, United Fresh Produce Association

“Traceability is an important step and a valuable tool for all companies to have in place, and I believe it will be mandatory moving forward, so the sooner companies implement, the better.”
—Jim Heil, Giumarra Cos.

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