Industry creating system to track produce
Most California growers of fresh produce are helping create a system that traces the origin of their products, leading to rapid correction if contamination or questions occur.
Food-borne illnesses in 2006 finally traced to fresh spinach convinced growers, packers and shippers that a highly dependable and more immediate tracking system had to be established. Before the offending batch of Salinas Valley spinach was identified, hundreds of acres elsewhere had to be disked under as consumers refused to buy. Suppliers want to avoid a repeat of that devastating market disintegration.
Three major organizations in the fresh produce distribution arena are helping coordinate traceability efforts: United Fresh Produce Association, Produce Marketing Association and Canadian Produce Marketing Association. They call the effort the Produce Traceability Initiative, or TBI.
Working together, the three associations are cooperating with the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to work through the tedious details of identifying the origins of a single head of lettuce, a cantaloupe or a Central or South American banana. Consumer protection is paramount because many produce items are consumed raw without the help of cooking to destroy pathogens.
Cooperation by grower organizations is making it easier to bar-code and tag fruit and vegetables grown in California than to specify the origins of tropically grown guava or papaya, but reliable identification from a wide range of production areas is evolving.
The team consisting of the three national produce organizations, local growers and handlers and their associations has accomplished the registration of brand owners, assignment of identification numbers, and 2010 will see that all consumer packages include readable information about the supplier and how that firm can be contacted.
Tracing the packed commodity is harder for some products than others. Many packers (or "brand owners" as the traceability procedure identifies them) historically have processed and packed a commodity grown by more than one grower in a single operation. Even produce packed for a single grower, but from different fields, orchards or vineyards, has made for a challenging identification issue.
But the listed identification numbers, bar coding and adjustments in packing operations are allowing the traceability concept to materialize. Achieving such detail without computers is beyond imagination.
Currently, the point to which identification is extended is still unresolved. Some believe it is enough to specify where the contents of a shipping container such as a box or carton originated. Others believe the process needs to be carried to individual consumer packages within the shipping container.
One goal of traceability is to determine where an exposure to a food-borne pathogen might have occurred. Retail warehouses are a possibility, and so are transportation facilities. Of course, packinghouses must be considered; and the fields, orchards or vineyards where the commodity was grown are possible sources.
Consumers demand a lot these days, and nobody in the supply chain wants to deny them any assurance that their produce purchases are as wholesome, pure and nourishing as they expect. The traceability program is one way to assure them.
The program has originated in the produce industry and its full-scale involvement has given the Food and Drug Administration a tenable platform from which to do its work. Identification of fresh commodity lots has already reached a level that could not have been conceived as recently as 10 years ago.
Whether or how the traceability now evolving in the organized produce industry can be matched by local suppliers to farmers markets and in their roadside farm stands is still open to discussion. That might require a little more raw determination.
CONTACT Don Curlee at firstname.lastname@example.org