If there is one sign that shows continuing progress in the Produce Traceability Initiative (PTI), it is the fact that many major retail buyers are coming online with PTI plans or are announcing their intention to do so soon. PTI, sponsored by United Fresh, Produce Marketing Association, Canadian Produce Marketing Association, and GS1 US, was launched in 2006 after the deadly spinach E. coli outbreak.
Since the outbreak, growers and the entire produce marketing chain have been preparing for the gradual implementation of PTI. The heart of the program is case-level labeling that specifies the identity of the brand owner, and identification of product with lot or batch number that provides harvesting and packing information.
During United Fresh’s annual conference in May, the PTI Leadership Council announced what it characterized as a surprisingly high level of compliance already carrying proper labeling capability in its distribution centers. This may be because the Council is made up 32 larger companies that have been steeped in the process for years. However, many suggest a good amount education and assistance is still needed for smaller growers and packers.
Walmart Makes Its Move
At the end of May, Walmart and Sam’s Club announced that effective Nov. 1, 2013, all fresh commodity produce delivered to Walmart distribution centers will be required to have standardized case labels consistent with PTI standards. Those labels will be required to contain a global trade item number, lot/batch number, voice pick code, and a pack or sell-by date.
In a letter to suppliers, Walmart corporate noted: “As you know, both Walmart and Sam’s Club are long-time supporters of PTI, its milestones, and standards. Along with that, we are corporately placing a heightened focus on freshness, quality, and satisfaction of the produce we sell to our customers. In the past months, we’ve invested significant resources to improve our freshness, flow, and store level execution. To ensure customer confidence in produce industrywide, food safety and traceability continue to be the most important focus areas. To the end, we’re ready to take the next big leap toward standardized case labeling and product track and trace. We recognize and commend those of you that are already there. We appreciate your trailblazing efforts. The fundamental pieces are in place and are being demonstrated on a commercial level by many small, medium, and large suppliers. It is now the time for us to move it to the norm.”
Publix Preps For Full PTI
Lakeland, FL-based grocery giant Publix is well into its plans for implementation of PTI. The chain distributes nearly 100 million cases of produce annually from its distributions centers to 1,047 stores. The retailer has organized a PTI project team, which includes representatives not only from produce and distribution, but also engineering, business, and information specialists to help ramp up systems and train employees and suppliers.
In a recent submission to PTI FYI (a publication on the progress of the initiative), Publix noted: “By following PTI guidelines, Publix has implemented radio frequency receiving, allowing us to scan by lot code. While we had a few hurdles along the way, we do expect to see improvements in accuracy and productivity in the near future.
“These improvements will be based on the re-engineering of our receiving processes. Initial questions about applying PTI guidelines to our operations included concerns about the necessary process changes, new technology usage, and suppliers’ readiness for full implementation and related costs. We decided to focus on inbound traceability first, which required redesigning our receiving process. Publix has moved from a paper-based process with manual product identification to wirelessly scanning product bar codes to automatically capture product information, including lot numbers, expiration dates, and even country of origin using GS1 standards.”
Working With Suppliers
Both Walmart and Publix have noted that PTI implementation can’t succeed without suppliers/growers being able to provide the right data in the right format at the right time. This will require retailers to work closely with suppliers to ensure all needs are met as PTI comes fully online.
Walmart noted that it will be willing to work with suppliers making a “good-faith effort” toward standard case labeling. In those individual situations and through buyer discretion, more time could be allotted beyond the Nov. 1 deadline, but those instances would be the exception, not the rule.