Track-and-trace Technology for Fresh Produce

The last year consumers have been facing large produce safety recall incidents (salmonella and E.coli).
Tomatoes were said to be the culprit, were pointed at, and took the blame, although they (probably) never made anyone sick. And while consumers stayed away from potentially ‘killer tomatoes’, the industry lost a lot of money. Panic leapt from one produce category to another with every new announcement, as neither the FDA nor the industry were able to come up with the source of the disaster.
But tell me, what exactly was the problem? Still, there is no answer, but even without the answer, what is this dreadful debacle teaching us?
In spite of the millions of dollars growers and processors have invested in state-of-the-art clean facilities and HACCP practices – consumers are facing recalls, and left in the dark in terms of information. Which is the brand of tomatoes that can be trusted to be safe? Where is the information that tells consumers from where the produce is originated. Brand identity with additional product information would be a good thing.

This leads to brand-protection technologies. However what’s amazing is that many of the executives, surveyed in a Colman-Brohan-Davis report, still question the near-term value of deploying information to fully empower consumer decision-making. Apparently the prevailing wisdom among many food executives is that sharing information with consumers is a waste as they are supposed to not understand it.
Contrary to this prevailing wisdom, the consumer has full access to unimaginable amounts of information at his fingertips through existent and future devices such as the internet and mobiles which read barcodes and other matrixes. Consequently, brands, whether they like it or not, have to be the authoritative source of information about their products … or someone else will be.

One of the brand-protection technologies is the track-and-trace technology. Traceability, as defined by Dr. Jeff Brecht (Professor at the University of Florida/Institute of Food & Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS), refers to the ability to locate an item at any time within the supply chain, as well as to call up a history of where that item originated and where it has been. For produce, one of the most important uses of traceability is to locate a lot of fruits and/or vegetables in the event of a food safety recall incident. This allows shippers and other handlers to promptly remove the suspect items from the distribution system. Also, retailers can prevent consumers from carrying through with a purchase of produce from a lot that has been identified as potentially unsafe. Efficient, rapid recall systems can minimize the negative economic impact of such events by quickly targeting the specific, suspected lot, and also serve to boost consumer confidence in the ability of the produce industry to respond to crises and protect consumers from potential harm.

Few markets have been more active in adopting this solution than fresh produce, where product recalls have been numerous lately. During the past couple of years, the Produce Marketing Association, Canadian Produce Marketing Association, and the United Fresh Produce Association have been developing and promoting the Produce Traceability Initiative (PTI). This Initiative is an industry-led effort to enhance traceability throughout the entire produce supply chain. It contains both internal and external traceability programs, needed in order to effectively track and trace products up and down the supply chain, achieving whole-chain traceability. At present, most companies have “internal” traceability programs, but have to expand to “external” traceability programs to include the consumer. The idea behind track-and-trace where produce is concerned is that the response to suspected recall events can be greatly accelerated if on-package product information follows the produce throughout the supply chain.

With Internal Traceability, confidential or proprietary data stay within their own span of operations to track/trace a product. With External Traceability there is data exchange between the trading partners including the consumer to track/trace a product.

One of the members of the PTI Steering Committee is Tanimura & Antle, a Californian company founded in 1982 on principles of quality, innovation and dedication to premium quality produce. Tanimura & Antle was one of the first to introduce an internal/semi-external identification tag for produce traceability.
The KwikTrak’r not only provides a re-sealable closure, keeping each lettuce head crisp, fresh and protected, but interestingly Tanimura & Antle also introduces a fresh produce traceability. Each KwikTrak’r clip, used for iceberg lettuce, is printed with the Ranch Number, Field Location, Work Number and Pack Date, so that the consumer (theoretically) can know exactly where the iceberg lettuce has come from.
But who is familiar with the codes used by Tanimura & Antle? This innovative food safety development is a promising step forwards, but misses the code explanation, which isn’t even available on T&A’s website and only obtainable by phone as the website is stating: “Call us today to TRAK your lettuce, 877.827.7388”.

The above mentioned shortcoming is eliminated by Arizona-based tomato and pepper shipper Del Campo Supreme, which introduced HarvestMark from YottaMark, Inc., for its tomatoes packaged in clamshells.
Each label for the clamshells Del Campo uses to package its tomatoes is pre-printed by the label converter using a high-speed ink-jet printer with a unique, encrypted code in both human-readable and 2D datamatrix format. When the clamshell is filled with tomatoes at Del Campo, the unique code is scanned to associate that clamshell with whatever lot the tomatoes came from. This clamshell-to-lot association is instantly captured in a YottaMark data base. The case into which that clamshell goes also gets a label with a unique code and that code is scanned into the data base as well, which means there is a parent/child relationship established between primary and secondary packages.

By entering a clamshell’s human-readable code into the Website, a consumer gains easy access to distribution, quality, and food safety information. Or if the consumer has one of the newer breed of smart cell phones, all he or she has to do is scan the 2D bar code to gain instant access to the Web-based information.

The cost of this technology is “cents per unit”, easily justified as any outbreak or recall which you can’t trace back, is a huge and potentially costly exercise. Food safety and quality control should be cornerstones of any business, and on-demand traceability adds a critical business value to the existing operations, as if there is an outbreak or problem of some kind, the whole category gets a big blanket of negativity and bad press thrown over it. With technology in place that lets the consumer track the product back to the field, the lot, and the grower, the marketplace can be informed that the outbreak is traceable back to a certain brand and the consumer can buy the other brands with confidence.

4 responses to “Track-and-trace Technology for Fresh Produce

  1. Pingback: Will the Mediterranean Diet Work for Me? « e377·

  2. Hi Anton,

    Thanks for the interesting article. As a supplier of printing technology I am surprised by the lack of interest from the industry for use of 2D datamatrix for Track and Trace. Use of this technology makes it easy to apply a camera in the production line to guarantee that a code has been applied. The camera’s are cheap (+/-1000 Eur) and really easy to work with. 2D allows much more information to be attached to the product and from a printing perspective works easier than standard barcodes.

    The technology has been around for years, works reliably and can (often) be printed using the existing date code printers, why do you suppose there is still so little interest for 2D? Knowledge perhaps?



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