The Produce Traceability Initiative is a worthwhile investment, especially in the event of outbreaks, according to key industry stakeholders, including Walmart Stores Inc. .

Prevention is king when it comes to food safety, but a standardized traceability system can make a difference when an incident occurs.

Stephen Ostroff, deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine for the Food and Drug Administration, said PTI labels make it easier for the agency to reconstruct supply chains in the course of investigating outbreaks.

“The short answer is yes,” Ostroff said. “The ability for us to do a traceback and the ability for us to do a traceback quickly is directly dependent on what information is available and the ease of access of that information, and so (PTI) I think helps to address that.

“Of course it’s only useful if it’s adopted by the producer and the distributor, etc., so it’s only useful when it’s there," Ostroff said. "So the degree to which it’s been adopted and is actually being used I think is the critical issue in terms of how helpful it is in terms of doing tracing.”

The industry estimates that 60% of produce cases have PTI labels, though traceability programs in general are nearly ubiquitous.

“We’ve all got them,” said Bob Whitaker, chief science and technology officer for the Produce Marketing Association. “The problem is that you see many times that each individual grower might have a different type of traceability program, use their own codes for a field or a season or a production location or a commodity. And so you end up with essentially traceability programs that are almost in different languages.”

The industry developed PTI years ago specifically to bridge such gaps.

“There’s no question that PTI accelerates the ability to do tracebacks." - Frank Yiannas, Walmart

Frank Yiannas, vice president of food safety for Walmart, has long been a proponent of PTI and blockchain, a digital ledger technology being developed to facilitate the sharing of information throughout the supply chain. For produce, PTI is the foundation for blockchain.

“Without that universal language ... it’s hard to communicate,” Yiannas said. “And so those that have adopted PTI I think are poised to benefit faster from this new era of digitizing food and what it’s going to mean to the produce industry.”

Aside from the future applications, PTI is also helpful now, particularly in outbreak scenarios, Yiannas said.

“It allows companies and retailers to make digital connections easier, although building interfaces in between disparate systems is still hard, but it’s easier to build user interfaces when you have standards such as PTI,” Yiannas said. “Even when you’re doing the traceback exercises on paper, like we understand FDA is doing in a large volume of these traceback exercises, it allows you to actually see the connections a little bit more rapidly ...

“There’s no question that PTI accelerates the ability to do tracebacks,” Yiannas said. “In digital systems it facilitates it significantly. Even in paper version it makes it easier for investigators or retailers to do that.”

“We measure our success through test recalls requested by our customers and grower partners, some of whom ask as us for trace information as frequently as weekly." - Steve Roosdahl, Oppy

Steve Roosdahl, executive supply chain director at Vancouver, British Columbia-based The Oppenheimer Group, participated in one of the industry working groups involved in the introduction of PTI and describes it as an effective system.

“We measure our success through test recalls requested by our customers and grower partners, some of whom ask as us for trace information as frequently as weekly,” Roosdahl said. “PTI enables a forum for these exercises to take place efficiently and an opportunity for us to gain an even deeper understanding of our supply chain in partnership with our customers.”

He explained that implementing PTI was relatively simple in the U.S. and Canada but less so elsewhere.

“The more challenging area is working with growers in 27 countries each with multiple packhouses who all need to implement PTI,” Roosdahl said. “We provide them with the specifications and expertise, but they need to work with the packing line equipment vendors to implement. Most have been successful, but as some retailers’ traceablity requirements go beyond the PTI standard it’s problematic to pack at source, so oftentimes product is shipped in bulk and we pack to retailer specifications here.”

While certainly helpful, more adoption of PTI would not necessarily be a silver bullet for outbreak investigations.

“FDA has, in terms of being provided with records and being able to work through those records, they have been successful in obtaining the records and in getting through them to get back to the farms,” said Jennifer McEntire, vice president of food safety and technology for the United Fresh Produce Association. “The problem is that there’s not just one farm, one ranch, one of anything obvious that’s in common ... so I don’t know that the problem here is the traceback itself and the inability to trace back. It’s the inability to find a point of convergence, which is not necessarily the fault of the records. There’s something that’s eluding us — all of us — which is very frustrating.

“I don’t know that PTI would address that issue, but certainly the time to wade through these records should be decreased,” McEntire said.

“It’s time to do this, it’s important to do this, a lot of our industry has done it already, but it’s going to take a little bit more time to get everybody up to speed on this.” - Bob Whitaker, PMA

Sifting through paper has been a major obstacle in the romaine investigation, Ostroff said.

“Paper records are better than no records, but obviously part of the problem with paper records is that they’re in many, many different formats, sometimes they’re even in different languages,” Ostroff said. “And if you have to laboriously go through them, page by page by page, that takes an enormous amount of effort and it takes a lot of resources, and then that information has to be in some way uploaded into a database to make it both usable as well as to be able to manipulate the information to try to discern patterns, and so it’s always preferable if the records are available in electronic format.

“For anybody in that supply chain, it’s an opportunity to be much more efficient if that information is collected and stored electronically than if it’s in paper form,” Ostroff said.

Much of the industry already uses digital records, Whitaker said. For any companies holding out, he noted that making the switch is important.

“At some point you have this crossover where that cost, that upfront cost for a traceability system, pays for itself because of the costs of an inefficient recall can be staggering,” Whitaker said. “It’s time to do this, it’s important to do this, a lot of our industry has done it already, but it’s going to take a little bit more time to get everybody up to speed on this.”

Yiannas also urged companies to implement PTI if they have not already.

“Even if you’re tracking on paper, having PTI will allow connections on paper to be made more rapidly — significantly more rapidly — than doing traceback where you don’t have traceability attributes as defined by PTI,” Yiannas said. “It could make the difference between weeks to days in terms of being able to do an effective traceback to source.

“As new enabling technologies come along, it won’t be just a 'nice to have,' it’ll be a requirement to have, and you’ll be able to do (trace) in seconds,” Yiannas said. “Consumers are expecting it, demanding it, they want to know more about their food, where it came from. Regulators, I think after the romaine incident, will be increasingly interested in being able to do traceback more rapidly than we’ve done to date, and so I would encourage them to do it and to do it now. I’m convinced that they’ll see the benefits of it as well.”

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