When E. coli tainted food caused a number of deaths and thousands of illnesses across much of Western Europe earlier this year, one of the greatest problems investigators faced was finding the source of the deadly bacteria. That has been the case in several outbreaks caused by strains of E. coli or salmonella in both Europe and North America.
But containing the damage may get easier in the future. In the last few years, governments, health agencies, and the food, foodservice, and grocery industries have implemented a wide variety of initiatives both to prevent those outbreaks and to respond swiftly when they do occur. One of the most critical parts of those efforts is quickly tracking down the source of the illnesses and getting the tainted goods out of the supply chain. That has meant added responsibility for managers of food supply chains. To enable investigators to track illnesses from the point of the outbreak back through the distribution network requires good information along each step of the distribution process.
The industry has taken several steps in this direction in recent years. For example, under terms of the U.S. Bioterrorism Act of 2002, passed out of fear that terrorists might try to tamper with the nation's food supply, every facility that handles food is now required to keep records documenting the movement of its products "one step forward, one step back" in the supply chain. However, industry leaders have long felt the need for a more efficient and systematic approach to tracking goods throughout the entire supply chain.
Now, an initiative by trade groups representing produce farmers in North America promises to extend traceability back to the field and day the food was harvested. That effort, the Produce Traceability Initiative (PTI), calls for the electronic collection and storage of tracking data as goods move through the distribution process. The overarching goal is to enable investigators to rapidly track cases back through the supply chain should an outbreak occur.
A common language
The PTI is a joint effort by the U.S. Produce Marketing Association, the Canadian Produce Marketing Association, the United Fresh Produce Association, and GS1 US (formerly the Uniform Code Council). Proponents believe detailed chain-of-custody information would protect producers as well as consumers. Once investigators determine the source of contamination, they could quickly track those products down and remove them from the supply chain while avoiding broad recalls that force companies to dispose of uncontaminated food.
The initiative calls for identifying every case of produce at the time of harvest with a label containing both human readable text and bar-coded information on the source of the food. The PTI is more than just another labeling mandate, however. In addition to extending labeling back to the fields and orchards, it's particularly notable for its establishment of standard nomenclature for product identification—something that's essential to achieving electronic traceability across the entire distribution network. At the heart of the initiative is a provision calling for key pieces of product identification data to be encoded on labels in a common format that can be read by each receiving and shipping facility—including DCs—along the supply chain. Essentially, that would allow food handlers at every stage of the process to capture detailed tracking data for their electronic records with a swipe of a bar code.
The standards adopted by PTI conform with those developed by GS1 US for supply chain management and control. (GS1 US is the U.S. affiliate of GS1, an international organization that develops standards for improving supply chain efficiency and visibility across multiple sectors.) Specifically, each case must be labeled with a 14-digit GS1 Global Trade Item Number (GTIN), which will identify the "manufacturer" or grower, and 2) a lot number identifying the batch from which the produce came.
As for when all this will take effect, the deadline's coming up quickly. The PTI's leadership has set a target of achieving "supply-chain wide adoption of electronic traceability of every case of produce by the year 2012."
David Senerchia, director of new business development for printing and labeling specialist Zebra, says the initiative promises to take tracking and tracing to the next level in terms of both speed and efficiency. "The Bioterrorism Act required a trail of custody, but no specifics on how you did it as long as you could do it," he says. "But a number of events made it clear you had to do it relatively quickly and that made people think about how they have to have electronic data capture. Growers picking product five or six years ago were not labeling the case, though they were keeping records. Now, the case can go from field to the local retailer or a full-scale distribution channel and at each point, we can store data in a common way that all parties in the supply chain can share." In addition, the PTI allows the industry to get a jump on new food traceability mandates included in the Food Safety Modernization Act, signed into law by President Obama early this year. "The law gives the Food and Drug Administration increased authority to develop and enforce regulations," says Senerchia. "The industry wants to get ahead of that."
Labeling in the great outdoors
With that 2012 target date looming, labeling and printing specialists have been under pressure to bring suitable equipment to market—specifically, portable printers and labelers that can stand up to use in fields and orchards as well as labels that can withstand rugged handling yet remain readable. But equipment suppliers have stepped up to the plate. For instance, Intermec, a manufacturer of printers and related media, offers options such as rugged mobile printers or fixed printers that could be mounted in a vehicle, along with label stock able to hold up under rainy or wet conditions.
Don Blanton, manager of product marketing for Intermec, cites one customer, Washington Fruit & Produce, that uses Intermec scanners and bar-code technology from Washington-based Pacific ID to ship more than 3 million apples a day. The bar codes and readers enable the company to determine the orchard of origin for the apples and to-the-minute data on when the fruit was packed, he says.
Blanton adds that further enhancements are under way. He reports that technology in the works will allow GPS location information to be integrated into bar-code data. "We're working with several partners on the end game," he says. The goal, he says, is to be able to scan a bar code and know the full history of a case of produce back to where and when it was picked. "We are not quite there yet, but the produce growers are taking the initiative," he says.
In the meantime, developers continue to work on scanners and reading devices that will serve multiple purposes. Thomas Heitman, manager of solutions consulting for systems integrator Peak Technologies, says, "What we really need within the same device is a combination of bar codes that identify the product along with connectivity outside of the four walls—in the truck or in the field—and GPS connectivity that can track where a vehicle has been and track product onto and off the truck. You don't want a person to have five or six things hanging on a belt. One thing is much easier and more cost effective."
Hitting the milestones
As for where the initiative stands to date, PTI leaders say the produce industry is well on its way to meeting its 2012 goals of achieving supply chain-wide electronic traceability of every case of produce. Earlier this year, a PTI survey of its Leadership Council member companies showed 79 percent of participants throughout the supply chain—growers, packers, shippers, retailers, wholesalers, and foodservice firms—were on track to hit PTI milestones by next year. Applying labels in the field may be a small part of the broader effort to ensure a safe food supply chain. But the ability to capture chain-of-custody data back to the field and orchard should provide an important tool to investigators and the industry alike.
Editor's note: For more info on the PTI and labeling requirements for growers, visit www.producetraceability.org.