The E. coli outbreak traced to contaminated spinach in late 2006 was a seminal moment for the produce industry. Everything changed. Retailers, distributors and farmers focused on food safety more than ever before. The produce industry mobilized to prevent or minimize future problems.
And it's no wonder why. Right after the incident, sales of spinach tumbled, while sales of packaged salads also dipped. It has taken a while to lure back consumers as sales have slowly moved up.
Along the way, the industry has taken concrete steps to maintain consumer trust and prevent future incidents from occurring. They include efforts to improve traceability, deploy technical solutions and conduct more efficient recalls, if necessary.
"Our food safety system is not complete without a more robust and quicker ability to rapidly recall our products and trace their history," says Bryan Silbermann, president of the Produce Marketing Association (PMA), Newark, DE. "The issue of how to have improved produce traceability is not about the technology; it's about changing our business practices. Effective traceability must be a business imperative for everyone in our industry. Consumers and regulators expect it."
PMA, the United Fresh Produce Association (UFPA), Washington and the Canadian Produce Marketing Association (CPMA), Ontario, have formed a joint Produce Traceability Initiative to drive broad adoption of consistent traceability best practices throughout the produce supply chain. The trade groups have combined forces to focus on the urgent need to use existing standards for the most effective trace-back and trace-forward practices between supply chain partners-from field to fork.
"It's critical to drive industry support to actually implement some of these systems that can provide the traceability we need, without inefficiencies or costs that could be imposed upon us by well-meaning legislators or regulators who don't understand our industry," says Tom Stenzel, president of the UFPA.
Officials stress that consistency in traceability standards is needed across the supply chain. For example, participants in each step of the supply chain-from producer to distributor to retailer-may rely on different tracing technologies. For example, a grower might tag a carton of tomatoes with its own scanning code that can't be read by the distributor who accepts the shipment. They use different systems.
The Produce Traceability Initiative looks to drive broad adoption of traceability standards and practices throughout the produce supply chain. It is now focusing on establishing a timeline for a series of milestones for recording traceability data on produce shipments.
The milestones that have been set include establishing company prefixes for brand owners; assigning GTINs (global trade identification numbers) to produce cases; showing GTINs, lot numbers and packing/harvesting dates on each case; encoding this information in bar codes; and reading and storing the information at each point in the supply chain.
Michael Farlekas of RedPrairie Corp., explains the distributor's perspective in which product is received from growers and stored in a warehouse for later delivery to stores. "I receive a case of lettuce from Grower A. I put it into storage in my refrigerated warehouse. Then I'll assemble my orders and take that case of lettuce from Grower A and send it to a grocery store wherever it might be."
Locating the contaminated product during a recall is not that difficult, according to Farlekas, vice president of sales of the Milwaukee-based firm that provides software to handle inventory and manage people throughout the supply chain.
"Our system would understand exactly where it came from and who touched it in the warehouse," he says. "We can very quickly tell that distributor where exactly that product went to, when it went, in what order and in what truck."