Pilot Tests Validate the Effectiveness of a New Leafy Greens Traceability Plan

Dec. 29, 2020
Six food industry organizations and supply chain partners test an improved Produce Traceback Template.

In response to FDA's September call for improved leafy greens traceability, a group of six food industry organizations in December released a report outlining four months of leafy green traceability pilots with supply chain partners, including growers, distributors and both independent and chain retailers.

Three pilot tests to track a theoretically recalled lot of produce were conducted July through October, and all were successful in tracing the source of the affected product.

The pilots showed that investigations into foodborne illness outbreaks could be streamlined and conducted more effectively when supply chain partners provided extended product information during tracebacks. Additionally, the use of a standard template called the Produce Traceback Template to exchange pertinent product information was found to enhance the speed of tracing procedures.

The six organizations were FMI-The Food Industry Assn.; GS1 US; International Foodservice Distributors Assn. (IFDA); Institute of Food Technologists (IFT); Produce Marketing Assn. (PMA) and United Fresh Produce Assn. (United Fresh).

Earlier, the Produce Traceability Initiative – a working group created by Canadian Produce Marketing Association, GS1 US, Produce Marketing Assn. and United Fresh Produce Assn. – identified "Seven Milestones to PTI Implementation" for case-level electronic traceability in the produce industry: obtain company prefix, assign GTIN numbers, provide GTIN numbers to buyers, show human readable information on cases, encode information in a barcode, read and store information on inbound cases, read and store information on outbound cases.

The Produce Traceback Template was created by a Produce Traceability Initiative working group. Supply chain members, starting with the point-of-sale or point-of-service, used the template to provide key data elements that allowed an item to be traced back to its source. The expert groups conducting the traceback analyzed the information provided by each supply chain node to determine next steps.

The pilot tests tracked romaine lettuce through three separate supply chains, starting with actual consumer purchases made with loyalty cards or credit cards. Small teams of industry experts mimicked FDA’s role in conducting the traceback, including determining the data to be requested, and how to format the requests for such data.

Although the participants said they would adopt the template in the future, the pilots revealed opportunities to refine the template and highlighted the need for a greater focus on education. Notably, the data that enabled each of the teams to successfully identify the product lot purchased by the consumer is not currently captured by the template. These data included business intelligence such as sales data, stock rotation, inventory controls and delivery schedules. These were critical in bracketing the scope of the traceback.

The pilot report provides guidance on a path forward for future use of the template including additional industry training and modifications to maximize effectiveness and increase ease of use.

“As outlined in the New Era of Smarter Food Safety Blueprint, pilots like these are necessary to determine what is needed for traceability to further scale, such as testing interoperability and public and private data sharing,” said Bryan Hitchcock, executive director of IFT’s Global Food Traceability Center and speaking on behalf of the six organizations. “The pilots provided valuable insights that will inform future outbreak response and recall protocols, helping industry to work together to support the FDA’s focus on tech-enabled traceability.”

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