Experts discover less expensive equipment as efficient
By JOHN O'CONNELL
PINGREE, Idaho -- Wada Farms joined in the fresh produce industry's voluntary effort to adopt traceability standards a couple of years ago, concerned government requirements would prove too costly and could become broader than necessary.
The large eastern Idaho fresh potato growing and packing operation is now poised to implement those safety protocols, called the Produce Traceability Initiative, at a moment's notice and at a cost well below original estimates.
PTI requires shippers and retailers to place an updated label on each case of produce, with specific lot data detailing its origin, and to modernize scanning equipment accordingly. The initiative should provide a specific means for the industry to comply with the forthcoming federal Food Safety Modernization Act.
Bob Meek, CEO of Wada Farms Marketing Group and a member of the PTI executive committee, said his company invited 20 of the nation's experts on traceability to help make PTI implementation efficient and sent a test shipment with the new labels to Atlanta.
The group found ways to cut printing and equipment costs, helping Wada develop its program for between $100,000 and $150,000, compared with an original quote of $500,000 made 14 months ago.
"At the end of the day we found less costly equipment that did the same job as the high-end stuff," Meek said.
As a PTI committee member, Meek believes he helped keep the project's scope focused. He also sees the potential for PTI to improve internal processes, potentially enabling Wada to use scanners rather than workers to monitor loading at each dock.
FSMA has a January deadline for passage but will likely take a back seat to higher priorities in Congress, said Dan Vache, with United Fresh Produce Association, one of four associations spearheading PTI development. Vache doubts suppliers will wait on FSMA to begin implementing PTI standards.
"Our industries recognize they need to take control of this. Everyone in the whole supply chain needs to tighten up a little bit so when there's a problem they can remove it from the market quickly," Vache said.
Ed Treacy, who represents the Produce Marketing Association with PTI and serves as a liaison to FSMA, said traceability standards have been in the works since 2006, when a broad recall hurt the spinach industry.
"It took a month and a half to trace through the supply chain and find where the product came from," Treacy said.
Treacy predicts FSMA standards will be broad and will complement PTI. Food Lion and some other retailers have already implemented standards, he said.
"We are expecting by mid-first quarter to have one of the major retailers setting a deadline for suppliers to comply," Treacy said.
He estimates 20-40 percent of the industry is already compliant or ready to make the switch.
"The South American and Mexican suppliers seem to be outpacing American suppliers on implementing this," Treacy said.
He advises suppliers against waiting until the last moment to comply as it could drive the costs of their programs up and hurt their ability to work with retailers.