Food safety forces change

Making sure fresh fruits and vegetables are safe to consume has always been an industry issue, but never more so than in the past generation. The power of mainstream media has brought food safety issues to the forefront at a rapid pace. 

Setting the Standards

One of the first moves toward ensuring food safety in produce came in 1996—a government-sponsored committee began a study of the industry’s microbial contamination problems, bringing about Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) guidelines for produce handlers, particularly fresh-cut processors.

But it would be another decade until a truly monumental event forced change.

In early August 2006, a single lot of spinach in California containing E. coli made its way to market, eventually sickening more than 200 people and killing three. Because no one could successfully trace exactly where the tainted greens came from by mid-September, the FDA and the CDC called for Americans to stop eating spinach.

“This incident alerted consumers that the fresh produce industry was not able to do tracebacks in a timely manner,” says Ed Treacy, PMA’s vice president of supply chain and sustainability. Perhaps even worse, the incident greatly affected consumer confidence in fresh produce.

The event would end up having more than a $300 million impact on the industry over the course of many months. Research shows that it took the industry seven years to regain the level of sales and confidence prior to the 2006 spinach E. coli outbreak, Treacy notes. 

But the outbreak did spur the industry into action. In 2007, PMA and other industry leaders founded the Center for Produce Safety as a way of backing food safety research. That same year, Western growers formed the California Leafy Green Products Handler Marketing Agreement to develop standards and protocols for food safety practices for that segment of the industry. The mandates, although not required, were adopted by 90% of greens marketers in California and Arizona.

Industry Takes Action

“We knew how to grow and provide healthy food, but in terms of industrywide traceability capabilities, we were just starting,” Treacy says.

In 2008, PMA, United Fresh, CPMA and GS1 launched the Produce Traceability Initiative (PTI)—an effort to formalize and determine seven milestones to implementing case-level traceability in the produce industry. 

“Growers had systems of tracing back product to fields,” says Bob Whitaker, chief science and technology officer for PMA. “The problem was everyone had their own system. I remember from being in the business myself that we had a useful and accurate system that allowed me to know the lot, harvest day, which plant the item was bagged in, date processed, which line it was on. But the minute it left our door, no one else knew what that meant.”

The PTI’s seven-step program, released in 2010, clearly outlined a way for the industry to implement universal case-level identification of fresh fruits and vegetables using a common language. Cases of product were assigned Global Trade Item Numbers (GTIN) thanks to technology by GS1 US, a nonprofit that led the way in barcode technology in the 1990s. 

This highly specified level of identification did for cases what UPCs did for individual items, allowing each case of produce to be tracked individually back to the distributor, repacker or grower. The plethora of data that could be embedded about each load—including commodity, lot and batch number, grade, country of origin, package type (blister pack vs. plastic-wrapped tray, etc.)—was important. Labels could also track whether an item was conventionally grown, greenhouse grown, hydroponic, organic, fly free, or using IPM.

Rules and Regulations

In the meantime, Congress got to work writing laws that would affect the U.S. food supply. In January 2011, the Food Safety Modernization Act became law, shifting the focus from a reactionary stance to a preventable approach to food safety.

But, unfortunately, in September, a listeria outbreak in cantaloupes in Colorado killed more than 30 people. While the loss of human life was significant, ramifications of the event were even greater. For the first time, retailers were successfully sued by families involved in the outbreak—in the past, it was growers, packers and shippers that bore the financial effects. Although “hold harmless” agreements and recall insurance can protect against such measures, in this case those things did not cover costs, Treacy says. Industry giants Kroger and Walmart wrote checks in excess of $10 million to settle lawsuits brought on by families affected by this outbreak.

That got the industry’s attention.

Walmart and Kroger had been active in the development of PTI, Treacy says, but major retailers had not yet made it a requirement. The listeria lawsuit, which was still ongoing in May 2013, was a game changer.

“We had approximately a 25% adoption of PTI before May 2013,” Treacy says. Walmart gave its suppliers until the end of 2013 to comply with the standards. January 2014 became a defining moment—when Walmart refused one shipment because it wasn’t PTI labeled. “Within days they [Walmart] had near 100% compliance,” Treacy says. Almost overnight the industry had 50-55% compliance industrywide, he notes. 

Today, nearly six years later, Treacy estimates that the fresh produce industry is at about 60-65% implementation of PTI. Of the 6 billion cases of produce that are handled in the U.S., about 3.6 billion cases have a standardized case label put on them today, he says.

Traceability issues (or a lack thereof) have not gone away. In the spring of 2018, an E. coli outbreak linked to romaine from Yuma, Ariz., sickened nearly 200 people and killed five. A second incident involving romaine from California over Thanksgiving weekend continued to worry consumers. 

Instead of enacting a recall in the fall of 2018, the FDA issued an “advisory.” This move was huge—because buyers can’t purchase “advisory” insurance, companies with romaine already in the supply chain for the holiday weekend were forced to face big losses—on one of the busiest food preparation weekends of the year. 

“As we’ve seen with romaine and other product recalls, without a traceability system in place massive recalls take place for an entire commodity sector. Further, grower/shippers are prevented from shipping more product until clearance is given from government authorities,” says Doug Grant, executive vice president and COO of The Oppenheimer Group, who also serves as PTI Leadership Council co-chairman. 

“This sounds odd, but the glimmer of hope is in the pain the industry’s been going through,” Whitaker says. “The glimmer of hope is that there’s been enough pain to capture the attention of retail and foodservice companies to look at it [digital blockchain traceability] and say ‘it may cost us to do this up front, but everyone has a shared burden and a shared interest.’”

Digital Plan in Place

Change is coming. Treacy and United Fresh’s Jennifer McEntire have been working with the FDA to develop a digital template for the fresh produce industry that will greatly assist the FDA during future traceback investigations. 

The new endeavor will be an update to the guidance document on sharing data during a traceback that was created by the PTI Implementation working group. The template captures the key data elements at critical tracking events that the FDA will need during times of a foodborne illness outbreak like lot number, date, quantity, when it was shipped, when received, when used as an ingredient or consumed, or when it was disposed of. The template was being tested and piloted for leafy greens by retailers like Wegman’s and Associated Wholesale Grocers in the summer of 2019. 

Wegman’s—upon the first trial of the template—was able to trace romaine shipments between 12 different suppliers in an average of 2 hours and 11 minutes, Treacy says. “Once it gets integrated, companies will be able to do it in minutes,” he says. 

“Many grower-shippers have implemented PTI case labels and are ready to share data electronically,” Grant says. “At this point, only a handful of retailers are implementing PTI, notably Walmart, who has taken a leadership position. The next game changer will be when other retailers adopt PTI at some level.”

“It creates awareness and a bit of momentum—moving to supply chain transparency. Traceability is part of that transparency. Consumers want to know exactly where their food is coming from,” Whitaker says.

One thing is certain: traceability will continue to be a hot topic well into the next generation.