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Traceability Committee
Cuts To The Chase For Workable Standards

Our piece, Traceability Group Meets Tuesday, highlighted the first meeting of the joint industry task force on traceability. Now the three associations driving the effort — CPMA, PMA and United Fresh — have issued a joint statement:

Produce Traceability Initiative Steering Committee’s first meeting begins laying groundwork for industry-wide standards program

The steering committee of the Produce Traceability Initiative, an industry-led effort to adopt traceability throughout the produce supply chain, met for the first time Jan. 9 in Atlanta to develop an action plan for establishing industry traceability best practices and goals for their adoption and accountability.

The initiative was launched in October 2007 by Produce Marketing Association (PMA), Canadian Produce Marketing Association (CPMA), and United Fresh Produce Association (United Fresh). It is guided by a steering committee of more than 30 companies with balanced representation from the buying and selling community, including participants from all segments of the supply chain.

During its first meeting, chaired by Food Lion LLC Chief Operating Officer Cathy Green and facilitated by Perishables Group Executive Vice President Steve Lutz, the committee addressed a broad range of traceability issues facing the produce industry today. Overall, the group concluded that systematic and consistent application of common standards across the supply chain is needed to enhance chain-wide traceability, building the next critical step beyond many of the excellent internal traceability systems that exist within many different companies.

“It’s clear from the committee’s discussions that now is the time to move aggressively to adopt a consistent industry-wide approach to traceability. The industry can no longer afford to do business the way we have in the past,” Green said. “Everyone will need to make some investments — big and small companies, buyers and sellers — and while we recognize there are significant challenges of traceability, there is broad support from the industry and a deep commitment to act.”

The committee reached agreement on four key elements for implementing industry-wide traceability standards.

First, the group confirmed past industry support that the GS1 produce traceability standard developed by the international standards organization GS1 (formerly known as EAN-UCC) is the most efficient worldwide approach to achieve system-wide (i.e., both internal and external) traceability, and should be widely adopted as the produce industry standard.

“GS1 standards are researched and tested, and are the most widely used internationally,” Green said.

Second, it was agreed that a formal industry timeline for adoption of standards is needed. Steering committee participants agreed to begin evaluating what might be required to implement GS1 standards within their own operations, and will report back at the next committee meeting on recommended implementation timelines.

Third, the committee agreed to discuss ways in which companies could best show their support and commitment to adoption.

“Implementation is sure to begin gaining momentum across the industry when both buying and selling companies start signaling their support for the business process changes that will be necessary,” Green said. “When buyers state their commitment for traceability standards, and suppliers begin to make similar commitments, then things will really change.”

Fourth, the group agreed that traceability standards should be adopted at the case level initially, as the backbone of supply chain traceability. However, the committee encourages companies to move toward item-level coding as feasible, as many produce products are now packaged for the consumer, thereby offering a viable option for providing traceability to the item level.

The steering committee will meet next in February or March to form subcommittees that will address specific elements, such as setting timelines for adoption.

In addition, all three associations will post on their websites the committee’s minutes as well as presentations and other guides and resources being used as part of this initiative, for their members’ access and input.

“Traceability is a critical issue to the produce industry,” Green said. “We want to make sure that all members of the three associations are engaged in this important process, so we’ll be seeking their input and direction relative to implementation decisions for produce traceability.”

So grab the tablets; the industry leadership went up the mountain and came back with four “key elements” for the trade. Let us look at the elements and what they really mean.

1. The standard will be GS1.

Agreement on this means that this is not going to be an initiative looking to develop a new standard. This is crucial as development of a new standard would have probably entailed a decade of work. Now it can happen with some speed.

2. A timeline is required.

This means they actually want this to happen. So a date certain will be set.

3. They are going to discuss how companies can show support.

This is an acknowledgement that the whole thing will be worthless if this is perceived as something the associations think their members “should” do. The only thing that will make it real is if buyers require suppliers to move into compliance along with the aforementioned timeline and leading suppliers acknowledge they will. Then traceability will be an industry standard and almost everyone will fall into place.

4. Although the Steering Committee encourages item-level coding — for now the initiative is a case-level one.

Although some items, such as those in clamshells and bags, can be item-coded relatively easily, others are problematic. The committee decided to put first things first and focus on solving the problem at the case level. Other problems will be left for another day.

One gets the sense that despite these issues having percolated for some time, committee members really needed to go back to their organizations to get a sense for what kind of timeline might be feasible and what kinds of commitments their organizations were prepared to make.

The whole effort is a rare opportunity to solve an important industry problem in the most efficient manner possible. Everyone should seize the chance.

The industry owes a vote of thanks to those working so hard on this steering committee. Their work is not yet done, but the start is an auspicious one.

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