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The Produce Industry’s ‘Barcode’ of Approval
by Dan Vaché
The U.S. has a tremendous ability to produce and distribute healthy and nutritious fresh produce in an efficient and safe manner. It is recognized that there is always a risk for a pathogen to slip past the many checks and balances currently in place to ensure food safety. Even with dedicated industry efforts, events do occur. During the last six months of 2012, there were 16 documented recalls of produce involving apples, cantaloupes, mangoes, romaine lettuce, cherry tomatoes, and bagged salads.
While most companies engaged in the growing, packing, processing, and distribution of our nation’s fruits and vegetables have had some sort of internal traceability program in place since the Bio Terrorism Act of 2002 (one step up—one step back with subsequent records), the produce industry realized this was not good enough in the event of a food safety issue impacting its complex supply chain. In 2007, the fruit and vegetable industry took on the task of developing an external traceability program, the Produce Traceability Initiative (PTI), to complement the Bioterrorism Act. The initiative aims to assist governmental agencies in quickly identifying the location of specific implicated products by lot or batch number for removal from the supply chain. Its mission is to create an action plan to adopt an effective whole chain traceability program for the produce industry by incorporating the use of technology and common standards that serve as linkages between internal traceability programs.
As with any initiative involving process change and technology, there are challenges for early adopters. The PTI is no exception. The recommendation to apply a barcode on each case of produce is a whole new adventure for produce growers and shippers. The use of barcode technology is not new to the packaged food industry, it was first introduced to the retail trade in 1974 when a pack of Wrigley’s Spearmint chewing gum was the first UPC scanned at Marsh’s Supermarket in Troy, Ohio. But for bulk produce, it was indeed an undertaking.
In order to coordinate this produce industry-wide traceability initiative, 53 companies, including grower-shippers, wholesalers, retailers, food service distributors, and technology providers, volunteered to participate in 10 various working groups. Each working group of experts created guidance and best practice documents to pave the way for the use of standards.
The PTI Technology Working Group (one of nine PTI working groups) consists of a broad spectrum of technology companies who provide software, hardware, and technical consulting services. The group worked collectively to develop best practices for the industry, and to date have compiled and vetted best practices for Formatting Case Labels, Private Label/Brand, Direct Print, Product Substitutions, Cross Docking, Labeling Hybrid Pallets, and Best Practices for Repacking/Commingling.
Reading Between the Barcode Lines
The supply side began to pilot the different methods of attaching the Global Trade Idem Number, which includes the brand owner identification and item reference number, and the lot or batch number to each case of produce. The industry’s initial reaction centered around the potential disruption of current processes and the cost of labeling, whether it occurred in the field at point of harvest, in the facility on packing lines, or at time of shipment. All of these methods were tested multiple times by various solution providers and their supply side clients. The solution providers were able to successfully limit the impact to the current process efficiencies and keep the cost down.
A huge challenge was labeling at time of harvest for those produce items packaged immediately in the field to be sent down the supply chain, bypassing a packing facility. Should labels be preprinted in the office and delivered to the field, or printed in the field? Would it be feasible to label at the point of shipment, even if it impacted established processes and required additional handling of highly perishable produce? The additional challenge of unpredictable field conditions, including heat, wind, rain, dust, and mud, and factor in the fast pace at which the professional harvest crews work, and the situation becomes even more difficult. However, the best results were found when the harvest crews were asked to help design a solution to meet the objective that would be best integrated with their process. The employees came up with methods to have the PTI-compliant labels accessible on the field harvest equipment for immediate placement on each case. Field managers were surprised by how quickly they were able to train harvest crews, with many being unfamiliar with the technology, and the gains in efficiencies the crews discovered.
To bring the labels to the field, new designs for portable printers rugged enough to withstand field conditions were designed with ease of operation and low maintenance in mind. The ability to print and apply labels in the field was also a benefit to the operations in other ways—it provided real-time harvest information to the cooling facilities and sales teams by providing pack-out information that was not previously available on a real-time basis. And productivity increased by eliminating manual labeling, pen marking, and downstream guesswork.
With the engagement of the harvest crews, field managers and employees alike quickly developed a greater appreciation for the accuracy required for the products they handle in the field. They realized they are at the front end of traceability efforts and became more conscious of the requirements and expectations placed on them daily.
Packing within the four walls of a facility mostly eliminates the challenges of labeling from Mother Nature, but companies using either hand packing or high-speed packing lines face other obstacles. For example, many companies use pen and paper to document and track the movement of product, which can lead to inaccuracy of records and potential
mismarking of cases. Implementing a new system of labeling can be initially disruptive to the process, considering the learning curve and audit period to ensure proper label application is occurring. The industry acknowledges how much easier it is to use technology-driven systems compared to those that are paper-based, but even if an operation is already fully automated, some operations fear that installing new hardware for labeling could decrease efficiency and add functional complexity to the line.
Regardless of the operation’s strategy in applying a PTI label, it’s all made possible by an integration of software and hardware to maximize control over material handling, box and size recognition, and label application. When controls are put into place, the technology is able to direct cartons that have been labeled to designated pallet stations or mechanical palletizers via electronic carton controls. This enhances the use of previously installed conveyor systems and provides a granular level of product information to route the right carton to the right place for shipping to the right customer. These established processes have proven to reduce labeling errors to nearly zero.
Direct print on cases is also a challenge with many suppliers using corrugated brown, white bleached, and white printed material. These suppliers have found it difficult to establish enough contrast to print an acceptable barcode that will withstand temperature and humidity fluctuations throughout the supply chain. It has been tested and confirmed that suppliers using bleached or white printed areas on brown kraft can provide enough contrast for PTI compliant direct print GS1-128 barcodes, assuming high-resolution, well-maintained, and monitored direct print equipment is used. There is a continuous drive to use direct print to reduce costs by eliminating the use of a label. Methods currently being piloted include Drop on Demand High Resolution Inkjet, Thermal Inkjet, Industrial Laser Coding, and Digital Tissue Stencil Process. The real test of direct print will come when the entire supply chain is engaged and the direct print barcode is scanned multiple times.
The produce industry has been referred to as the poster child for all other perishable commodities preparing to attain a level of whole chain traceability to meet the needs and demands of government agencies and ultimately the consumer. With millions of cases of fresh produce moving through the supply chain annually, it is imperative to have visibility of the movement of fresh produce should a situation arise where it must be removed from the marketplace. With industry demands and concerned consumers, whole chain traceability is on the near horizon.
Multiple regional retailers and several food service distributors have announced to their suppliers their expectations regarding case labeling compliance. However, their buying power is limited and adoption has been slow without a critical mass in the market requiring PTI compliant labels on each case of produce. The tipping point is near for the wide adoption of the PTI with the recent announcement by WalMart/Sam’s Club indicating that on January 1, 2014, product received at their distribution centers without a PTI compliant label will be rejected unless an active exception has been issued prior to delivery.
This move significantly strengthens the momentum for the entire supply chain to implement whole chain traceability. The common goal is to have a system in place that when produce is implicated in a food safety event, the specific product can be contained and removed from the marketplace quickly while safe products continue to be available to the consumer.
Vaché is vice president of supply chain management at United Fresh Produce Association. He can be reached at DVache@unitedfresh.org.