Traceability Is Fundamental

There’s a good reason why the Escherichia coli outbreak of 2006 lit a rocket under the produce industry’s existing traceability efforts. It’s the same reason why the Salmonella saintpaul outbreak in 2008, and the more recent nut recalls, placed a public spotlight on traceability regulation. Plain and simple, the complex reality of today’s food safety environment demands better preparedness: for the industry, for regulators and for consumers. In the absence of full traceability, the consumer’s sense of security — and the food industry’s economic sustainability — is undermined. We can’t afford not to change.

This I believe: Our industry will look back five years from now and be very thankful we pushed so hard with the Produce Traceability Initiative (PTI) to develop a standardized, chain-wide approach to enhance traceability systems. I believe this as strongly as I felt that standardized PLU codes would change our merchandising and information management capabilities when we introduced them in 1991. We’ll also be thankful that we engaged our government regulators to educate them, that we improved their speedy access to information and that we helped them narrow the scope of recalls. In the process, we’ll also have partly changed our business culture — because greater transparency and information flow from field to fork is not just “nice to have,” it’s “must-have.”

As shown by a recent study done by the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General (OIG), greater attention to traceability is clearly needed across the food chain. The study finds only five of 40 foods could be traced back fully to their source; produce wasn’t in those successful five. As an outbreak management tool, traceability must quickly and accurately identify the product, locate the source, determine the amount of implicated product, determine which shipments contained the implicated product and get the notice to those who received the implicated product — all within hours. System-wide traceability — as well as the efficiencies, accountability, and security that go with it — requires a common language of information. Establishing this nomenclature means more than technology upgrades; it also requires changing practices surrounding foodborne illness investigations — industry practices and regulatory agency practices.

For example, 25 percent of those contacted as part of the OIG survey weren’t aware the Bioterrorism Act of 2002 mandates that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires companies to provide records showing traceability one step forward and one step back. Consider this a wake-up call to confirm your company’s compliance if FDA called you today; visit food_safety.cfm.

But our existing processes and systems are not enough, and that’s why the PTI developed its Action Plan. We need internal, proprietary traceability to achieve external, chain-wide traceability via standardized electronic case coding and recordkeeping. Not only will chain-wide traceability achieve business efficiencies, but it will also help the FDA do a better, faster job of tracing a product back in the event of large-scale foodborne illness. Efficient traceback will remove suspect product faster, preventing the risk of further illness and returning the marketplace to “normal” as soon as possible.

The PTI is a real-world solution developed by real-world companies. It’s designed to maximize the effectiveness of current traceback procedures. It’s based on global GS1 standards proven effective by other industries. We’re in the process of showing the government how it meets our needs and theirs — because if we don’t act, they will.

Yes, our action comes with costs at a time when budgets are squeezed. How much it will cost you to implement the PTI depends on the current capabilities and sophistication of your existing internal traceability systems. But unlike the sudden loss of product, customers, and credibility that mounts daily during a recall, costs related to PTI compliance can be planned and managed as implementation phased in over several years. Furthermore, the PTI team is working hard to minimize costs by providing the industry with as much information and guidance as possible to address the learning curve and shed light on Best Practices. Got an idea for a helpful tool? Let us know. The PTI Web site,, already offers advice and best practices for every milestone. We’re listening to concerns and seeking solutions. Add your voice to the dialog by endorsing the PTI action plan.

Food safety outbreaks are a fact of life, especially in an age of rapid detection and information sharing. There will be a next time for a produce safety outbreak. If we lack chain-wide, electronic traceability, there will be more stories of company-crushing and consumer confidence-crashing recalls that carry a price far greater than compliance. Enhanced traceability is as fundamental as insurance to manage your other business risks. To end a future recall in hours rather than weeks is worth what? To safeguard the health of consumers and the bottom line of your business by investing now to improve produce traceability costs what? Priceless.