November/December 2012
FSMA progress stalls By Bill Schaefer

Food safety has been a constant concern throughout the produce and retail industry. In the past, however, there were no metrics with which to monitor and regulate produce. Now with the Produce Traceability Initiative (PTI) and the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) growers, shippers and retailers are trying to find common ground on how to move food safety measures forward in an effective, efficient and economic means as possible in reaching the consumer.

With FMSA going nowhere fast, sitting in the Office of Management and Budget office awaiting implementation, it seems that PTI currently has the lead role in food safety.

Dan Vache, vice president of supply chain management for the United Fresh Produce Association, predicts that FMSA is low on the priority list when the lame-duck Congress comes back into session following the November elections.

Obviously we’d like to see them do the Food Safety Modernization Act,” Vache said, “we’d also like to see the Farm Bill get out but they also have to get a budget done. This is all balled up and I’m really concerned about our political structure here.”

Despite FMSA’s travails PTI continues to move ahead according to Vache.

“We have not slowed down as an industry in the implementation of the produce traceability initiatives,” Vache said.

However there needs to be a stronger buy-in to PTI from the national chain retail side Vache said.

“Some of them say that they’re going to do it (PTI) but they want to wait for FSMA,” Vache said, “that is a roadblock they can throw up for themselves. My feeling, and those of us involved in the PTI and dealing with the FDA, is that shouldn’t slow anyone down.”

Vache estimated that about 25 percent of supply side shippers are currently utilizing PTI practices.

Vache said that shipper fears of incurring large costs to set up a traceability system are unfounded. He said that he recently spoke with a solution provider who claimed that he could set someone up with everything they need to start labeling cases for under $1500.

“This will be a lot like PLUs,” Vache said, “we thought it was going to be really difficult and everybody dug in their heels and at the end of the day, everybody’s doing it.”

Bob Meek, CEO of Wada Farms Marketing Group, based in Idaho Falls, sits on the PTI executive committee. Meek said that one of the PTI objectives was to provide the FDA with information from agriculturalists, shippers, receivers and handlers.

“We knew this was a complex enough project that we wanted our input to the FDA,” Meek said, “we’ve given them some suggestions and they’ve listened to us and it’ll be seen how much they use or don’t use.”

Meek expressed some concern about FMSA, saying that he hopes that the food industry’s PTI efforts will help the FDA make pertinent and good decisions with the development of FMSA.Meek said that the potato industry’s risk factor is much less then other foods and he’s questioned whether the industry should be held to the same cost parameters and expectations as everyone else but ultimately it was decided that there has to be standardized practices across the entire food industry.

“What we’ve done is we’ve standardized for everyone because we didn’t find a way to break it out for those less risk items versus the higher risk items,” Meek said.

Meek said his company has made a significant investment in preparing for PTI and they are ready to implement traceability practices but retailers are not requiring it, yet.”We’re waiting on people to step up and find the budgets to fund it,” Meek said. “If that happens then we’ll go for it. We have had retailers and food service companies ask for it but no one has mandated it yet.”

He predicts that it will be another year or two before companies begin to PTI can begin to take shape and be an effective tool in food safety.Meek’s advice to growers, shippers and handlers that have not begun to implement PTI is to visit the PTI website and speak to companies who have started implementation.

“It’s really not that complex,” Meek said, “and at the end of the day it was probably a little easier to get into play than we thought. It’s doable. It’s not impossible. It will cost some money but it’s probably not as expensive as we thought.”

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