Growers and shippers all want their customers to know with unambiguous certainty that the potatoes they're purchasing are not only the highest quality and best nutritional value, but also are safe. The produce industry has come together as a whole to make sure that happens across the board. That effort is the Produce Traceability Initiative (PTI). The initiative launched in October 2007 by Produce Marketing Association (PMA), Canadian Produce Marketing Association (CPMA) and United Fresh Produce Association (United Fresh). Its efforts continue today.
In November 2007, more than 30 companies, including produce suppliers and retail and foodservice buyers, formed a steering committee to develop enhanced traceability on the food chain. The retail buyers on the steering committee included: Food Lion; H-E-B; W. Newell & Co. (Supervalu); The Kroger Company; Loblaws; Safeway Stores; Publix Super Markets; Schnuck Markets Inc.; Sobeys Inc.; Wal-Mart Stores Inc.; and Wegmans Food Markets.
Since then, seven milestones were developed to meet the initial vision and final implementation of PTI. The stated goal was for supply-chain-wide adoption of electronic traceability for every case of produce, including potatoes, by the end of 2012.
As the PTI nears the deadlines for implementation of its remaining milestones, there are some rumblings of concern among segments of the produce industry - including members of the potato industry. At the same time the PTI has recognized that some of the original milestones were flawed and are presently undergoing revisions.
A Voice for Potatoes
In the fall of 2010, Bob Meek, CEO of Wada Farms Marketing Group, was invited to be on the Leadership Council and the Executive Council of the PTI. Wada Farms is a major fresh pack potato producer, and marketer of potatoes, onions and sweet potatoes.
"I was concerned that we would have a voice for potatoes ... and I was concerned about having a high-risk item mandate and force the way that would create legislation and regulation for all of us that don't have high-risk items for sale and would cost us a lot of money," Meek said.
He estimated that the cost to implement PTI at Wada Farms would be between $100,000 and $120,000 annually just for the stickers necessary to trace back the produce, and that it will cost the state of Idaho $4.5 million just to put the equipment in place to run PTI.
Meek has expressed some initial concerns about PTI but is hopeful that through a collaborative, produce-wide industry effort that an affordable solution can be found.
Originally Meek expressed the he felt traceback couldn't be accomplished, but during the recent United Fresh 2011 convention in New Orleans some of Meek's opinion changed with the realization that a box with the Global Trade Item Number (GTIN) would be scanned into the system upon delivery so that with or without the physical evidence the GTIN could be identified.
"Frankly, I am an advocate our current system, especially with polybags and consumer packs. We have on our quick-lock codes; we have trace-back codes; we have lot identifiers it traces it back to the date, to the lot to the line that that product was ran on, and I advocate that system for bulk systems," he said.
Speaking from New Orleans during the convention Meek said that there will be traceback, the question now is: Will it be PTI or not PTI?
"It's going to be cost burdensome to all," Meek said. "It's going to cost the whole industry. The reality is we need one system. It's essential that we get all receivers, the retailers and foodservice providers to standardize their requests for the label itself."
Meek said that all sectors - growers, shippers, retailers, foodservice - are having to make major investments to make the transition to PTI but that is what is required to make PTI eventually work. Meek sees PTI as being pro-active and pre-emptive and said his ultimate concern is to make it "affordable, reliable and effective."
Travis Blacker, president of the Idaho Grower Shippers Association, said that the initial PTI proposal seemed relatively simple but over time it has developed into a Leviathan of a measure that has created even its own cottage industry of equipment, scanner technology and software.
Blacker said he believes that the potato industry, despite its safety record and current traceability practices, will adopt PTI's enhanced traceability measures due to the recent problems within other, more high-risk produce items such as leafy greens, tomatoes and peppers.
"In our mind we're American's favorite vegetable but we're also America's safest vegetable as well because I would say 99 percent of all Americans, when they eat a potato, they cook it first, which is a kill step and so it eliminates any issues we've ever had with foodborne pathogens," Blacker said.
Blacker said that he believes that most growers and shippers are waiting to see what happens with PTI at this point in time.
Looking at the Costs
At the same time Blacker held out hope that the recent Food and Drug Administration Food Safety Modernization Act might provide an alternative to the PTI milestones. Blacker said that the FDA might come out with a list of high-risk items and items that are not so high risk.
In a follow-up interview from United Fresh Blacker seemed resigned to the inevitability of PTI and that growers and shippers should begin making financial preparations, if they have not already, to meet the PTI milestones.
Dan Vache, vice president, supply chain management, for the United Fresh Produce Association, said he understands the concerns over the initial costs to implement PTI but believes that the initiative will eventually be the industry-wide standard for all produce.
"Everyone's going to have a cost involved," he said. "If you talk to retailers, they've got a very big investment. Most of them have to change their systems, both physically, how they bring product in and then ship it out and then some of them have got to update and change out their warehouse management system to deal with this record keeping electronically. So they are also involved in this to a large scale as far as the financial investment."
Vache said he believes that as produce industry members make the necessary investments in the equipment to implement PTI, the growers and shippers will see improved efficiencies within their businesses that will ameliorate the initial expenses incurred during the transition.
Vache said that PTI compliance is strictly voluntary and that the milestone deadlines are desired goals that the Leadership Council set but that he foresees a transition period before PTI becomes the norm for the entire produce industry.
For more information, visit www.producetraceability.org.
Over the past three years the desire to achieve the final goal and implementation of PTI received additional impetus with a series of pathogen-borne food poisoning outbreaks throughout the United States:
1. July 2008: Tomatoes considered potential cause of Salmonella poisoning outbreak in 41 states. The inability to trace back the source of the contamination illustrates the flaws in the Bioterrorism Act of 2002. A week later the FDA lifts its consumer advisory against eating tomatoes.
2. April 21, 2009: FDA issues a recall of peanut and pistachio products due to a salmonella outbreak.
3. April 27, 2009: FDA and CDE advise consumers not to eat raw alfalfa sprouts following a salmonella outbreak in a half dozen states.
4. August 2008: FDA and CDC say strong evidence links the salmonella outbreak to Jalapeno and Serrano peppers from a farm in Mexico.
5. July 22, 2009: Romaine lettuce recall due to Salmonella outbreak.
6. August 2010: Salmonella outbreak associated with eggs and poultry reported.