What’s “In Store” for PTI

Last December, in a submission to the FDA, Mr.Greg Fritz, Vice President of Produce Packaging, Inc. of Cleveland, Ohio referred to the PTI as a “boondoggle”. The list of those who agree with Mr. Fritz is growing.

Every one can agree that our food chain has become extremely complex. Today, we depend on a long chain of distribution to provide us our food. Most of us – as good consumers – don’t give this long journey a second thought. We blithely walk into our local gorcery store on a weekly, daily, or spot-puchase basis and fill our carts with the food we intend to feed our families. Very few of us stop to consider that nearly 1 in 4 Americans is sickened by the food they eat every year.

What kind of track record is that? How successful would a CPA be if 1 in 4 of their clients were subjected to a tax audit?

In response to concerns over the safety of our food supply, United Fresh Produce Association, Produce Marketing Association the Canadian Produce Marketing Association conferred to develop a solution for the produce industry, the Produce Traceability Initiative, or PTI. PTI’s main focus is to “to help the industry mazimize the effectiveness of current traceback procedures, while developing a standardized industry approach to enhance the speed and efficiency of traceability systems for the future.” The vision for PTI is to have every case of produce labeled for chain-wide adoption of electronic traceability by 2012. Sounds like an admirable plan. But are they getting sufficient “buy in” from their own industry?

PMA conducted a survey recenlty asking for feedback on the PTI from “all industry members involved in the produce supply chain, from grower to retail and foodservice.” That’s a lot of players. PMA membership is reported at about 7,000. But because the survey was addressed to “all industry members”, I did a quick search of fruit and vegetable growers/producers in the US; the list was just under16,000. Add brokers, packers, markets, grocers, and you can imagine how this number would increase. From this list of potentially-interested participants in the produce supply chain, PMA received….(wait for it)…. less than 300 responses. Not encouraging. Even if we were only to consider PMA’s membership, the rate of response is less than 4.3%. If the produce industry isn’t on board for PTI, how can they hope to make it relevant to consumers? And shouldn’t that be a huge factor?

Much of the concern of and hesitation to adopting PTI for most members of the produce supply chain has to do with the cost of implementation. In general the industry believes that adequate internal traceability all ready exists; that it’s more a matter of the FDA wanting one single format/report in the event of a recall. There is always a price associated with the integration of new technology into an existing process, so the question becomes, “where is the best place to spend this money”? And regardless of the answer, will the consumer be willing to absorb any of the additional costs associated therein? Consumersunion.org conducted a poll that reported: 73% of of those polled regard the overall food uspply as safe; 48% said their confidence in the safety of the nation’s food supply has decreased; only 54% think enough is being done to ensure food safety and 83% are concerned with harmful bacteria or chemicals in food. Other polls reveal that most consumers would be more for safer foods. It would seem that on the surface, the answer to the added cost question is yes.

I think the answer lays somewhere in the middle. PTI won’t necessarily improve traceability per se, but rather, standardize the format in which the information is communicated throughout the food supply chain. Between the mandates of PTI and the legislation currently before the 2 houses of Congress, the requirements seem overly-zealous to the point of being draconian. More should be done in terms of preventing the root causes of contamination prior to assuming a “one-size-fits-all” solution is the answer. I do believe that there are added efficiencies to be had through the increased use of technology in the food chain. The payoff, literally, comes in finding that balance….

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