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Traceability Initiative Lacks
Full Industry Representation

We had high hopes when we ran our piece entitled, PMA, CPMA And United Form Traceability Initiative, yet the release by all three associations raises some questions about where they intend to take this initiative:

Representatives of more than 30 companies from a broad cross section of the produce supply chain including retailers, foodservice buyers and produce suppliers have been appointed to serve on the steering committee of the Produce Traceability Initiative, an industry-led effort to enhance traceability throughout the supply chain. The initiative’s sponsor associations also announced today that the steering committee will be chaired by Cathy Green, chief operating officer of Food Lion, LLC.

The initiative was launched in October by Produce Marketing Association (PMA), Canadian Produce Marketing Association (CPMA), and United Fresh Produce Association (United Fresh).

The three trade associations came together earlier this year when the boards of directors of each organization recognized the need for greater progress in implementing a consistent whole-chain traceability solution. The steering committee will develop an action plan to help the industry meet this challenge, which may include promotion of industry wide traceability best practices, establishing timelines and goals for adoption, and a creating a validation process for accountability.

“It is evident that we must help drive a more comprehensive industry wide commitment to trace back and trace forward systems that can be used throughout the produce supply chain,” said Green. “A preventative food safety system begins with a sound, whole-chain traceability system that allows us to rapidly trace product movement up and down the supply chain. By working together to create meaningful action steps implementing greater traceability, we can both protect our consumers and our businesses.”

Participating companies currently confirmed to serve on the steering committee include:

  • Seven foodservice buyers: Amerifresh, Applebee’s International, Markon Cooperative, Inc., McDonald’s, Pro*Act, Sysco Corporation, U.S. Foodservice;
  • Nine retail buyers: Food Lion, H-E-B, W. Newell & Co. (Supervalu), The Kroger Co., Loblaws, Safeway Stores, Inc., Schnuck Markets, Inc., Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., Wegmans Food Markets; and
  • 17 produce suppliers: AEPQ (Quebec Apple Packers), B.C. Tree Fruits Limited, Ballantine Produce Co., Inc., C.H. Robinson Worldwide, Inc., Dole Food Company, Inc., Domex Superfresh Growers, Driscoll’s, Duda Farm Fresh Foods, Inc., Fresh Express, Inc., Fresh Innovations, LLC., Frontera Produce, Ltd., Naturipe Farms, LLC., The Oppenheimer Group, Pandol Brothers, Inc., Ready Pac Produce, River Ranch Fresh Foods, LLC., and Tanimura & Antle.

The initiative’s sponsoring organizations have also invited other stakeholder associations representing key business segments of the North American food industry to participate, including Food Marketing Institute, Canadian Council of Grocery Distributors, Canadian Horticultural Council, International Foodservice Distributors Association, and National Restaurant Association.

The first meeting of the steering committee will be held Jan. 9, 2008, in Atlanta, Georgia. The Perishables Group will act as the facilitator for the group’s meeting.

Subsequent to the release going out we learned that Sobeys will occupy an additional retail seat on the committee.

The committee is being chaired by Cathy Green, chief operating officer for Food Lion. She is a stranger to most produce people, but you can get a sense of Cathy’s mannerisms by looking at this video she did vouching for a consulting group Food Lion uses.

She comes across as professional, earnest and with a sense of humor — she will certainly need all three traits as she attempts to cut through the minefield of conflicting interests and come out with a result that is not just another report or recommendation that sits on the shelf.

Yet, the committee seems fated to produce at best a half-solution if it is not expanded to include the brokerage and wholesale sectors of the trade.

Despite all the high-tech tools that are out there, traceability is really not rocket science. If we happen to be talking about selling clamshells of product from a grower/shipper/packer to a retail distribution center for use in its own stores, it is actually pretty well within the competency of the trade to do this.

The real challenge for the industry is how to deal with segments where there is substantial horizontal trading — such as Nogales — and with variable supply sources and customers — such as terminal markets. The wholesale/distribution sector also provides windows into many other industry sectors such as small purveyors who supply many restaurants in urban areas.

Even the suppliers on the list are possibly a little too self sufficient. Many of the issues come up with vendors who may have a contract or an order to sell a buyer — but do not have sufficient production capacity to meet the contracts or orders out of internal supplies — they buy from all kinds of sources to make their orders.

Although some of the wholesale/distributor companies may be local or lack a big name, the industry might be surprised to find out it could learn from some of the executives that work for them. We ran a piece focusing on traceability and Alan Siger of Consumers Produce Co., Inc. of Pittsburgh pointed out that terminal market commission merchants were doing traceability long before traceability was cool:

As is often the case when those in the industry write about the supply chain, the Wholesale Distributor is ignored.

Those of us in the industry whose roots are in Terminal Markets as commission merchants have had the ability to track product well before anyone had ever thought about traceability for food safety reasons. The PACA requires commission merchants to track all sales by lot numbers in order to segregate one grower’s product from another’s. This insures that each grower receives the correct proceeds from the sales of their product.

The Produce Pro software that we use for lot-based sales enables us to track every package in seconds from Supplier to Customer for any lot of product that we have sold since we went on line with our system in the early 1990’s.

We have in fact done recalls on product, notifying the customers involved within hours if not minutes of the time we were made aware of the recall. Customers and suppliers of those of us in the industry who still do some commission sales can be confident of our ability to track both where our product comes from and where it goes. We’ve been doing it for years.

Alan is too polite to take umbrage at being excluded from the committee but, once again, the wholesale/distributor sector is being ignored. The exclusion of whole industry sectors is a major oversight. If we don’t change the make-up of the panel to include Alan and others who can contribute on behalf of similarly excluded segments, we are going to wind up with an “industry solution” that won’t apply to a big chunk of the trade.

Then there will be a big issue when the committee — thinking they have “industry consensus” — tries to shove the “consensus” down the throats of industry executives from industry segments that were not even consulted.

This is a rare opportunity for the produce trade, a chance to break through the finger-pointing in which everyone says they need their supplier or customer to move first. Traceability, though, only works if we start with the seed and end with the consumer.

The first meeting is not for over a month. We can still add a few more people and make sure all industry sectors have a voice at the table. We ought to do so.

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