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PTI Leadership Council Urges Industry Collaboration on Produce Traceability

Romaine outbreak, recent recalls highlight need to track produce’s 'last mile,' officials say
Photograph: Shutterstock

In the wake of recent foodborne illness outbreaks and product recalls, the Produce Traceability Initiative (PTI) Leadership Council recently convened to highlight the importance of industry collaboration around traceability and the benefits of blockchain for the food supply chain.

Focusing on the ability to track produce’s “last mile,” PTI Leadership Council co-chair Doug Grant of the Oppenheimer Group said, “The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) romaine outbreak investigation, combined with an increasing number of fresh produce recalls, highlight the need to be able to trace our products through to the retail level. And having more buyers step up and implement PTI at distribution center and store level will also send a strong vote of confidence to our supply chain about the need for and value of traceability.”

The romaine E. coli outbreak earlier this year sickened nearly 200 people in 35 states and killed five—worse than the spinach outbreak of 2006. The lack of traceability and communication between suppliers, retailers and federal authorities caused widespread confusion among concerned consumers.

Sponsored by Canadian Produce Marketing Association, GS1 U.S., Produce Marketing Association (PMA) and United Fresh Produce Association, PTI is designed to help the fresh produce industry maximize the effectiveness of current traceback procedures while developing a standardized industry approach to make traceability systems faster and more efficient.

PTI labels would have improved the FDA’s traceback investigation to limit confusion, according to FDA Deputy Commissioner Stephen Ostroff. “I’d like to think that [PTI labels] would’ve made the tracebacks that we were engaged in not only considerably easier but also considerably faster,” he told Valley Public Radio.

To prevent future outbreaks, retailers and suppliers are exploring the benefits of blockchain for the food supply chain. Walmart, for instance, has enlisted an effort with IBM and other industry members to harness blockchain digital ledger technology to provide a farm-to-store view of the food supply chain, while also using global GS1 Standards—the same foundation for which PTI labeling requirements are based for case-level traceability. A recent pilot test was able to trace fresh-cut mangoes back to their source in a matter of seconds rather than days.

The produce industry’s progress to implement the voluntary PTI has slowed as the supply chain awaits implementing regulations for both the U.S. Food Safety Modernization Act and Canada’s Safe Food for Canadians Regulations.

PMA and United Fresh have both urged the FDA to leverage PTI as it builds traceability regulations.

PTI has enlisted four founding organizations to collaborate on PTI traceability best practices and blockchain, including the Leafy Greens Task Force traceability work group, led by United Fresh’s Jennifer McEntire. PMA’s Ed Treacy and Canadian Produce Marketing Association’s Jeff Hall and Jane Proctor are also working in the group.

In addition to providing enhanced traceability capability, companies implementing PTI also report a range of other business benefits, including money-saving efficiencies in inventory management, record keeping and other business operations. “PTI can be a smart investment,” said Grant.

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