Trace-back & the Produce Traceability Initiative (PTI)

This bag of chips is labeled with information to allow trace-back (along with freshness dating).

Being able to trace a product back to its exact source in a matter of hours has become standard in many industries in the US and the world.  Look at any bag of chips, or cough drops, or vitamins, and you will see trace-back information. Though you might not be able to understand the coding, the company does.  The produce industry is just starting to implement such “trace-back” and “trace-forward” tracking systems.

The root of this effort comes out of the:

A PTI-compliant label. The long computer code at the bottom is a GTIN (Global Trade Item Number) developed by the non-profit GS1.

Read more about the history of produce trace-back on UC Davis’ Dr. Trevor Suslow’s 2009 article at Food Safety Magazine.  Another good article on trace-back in the same magazine is by Gary Fleming and United Fresh’s David Gombas, PhD.

In Hawaii, the produce industry is starting to consider how to best adopt trace-back technology.  The Hawaii Department of Agriculture has been experimenting with RFID (radio frequency identification) tags on boxes and pallets.  Specific stick-on labels are also being used by some of the larger producers and wholesalers.  Currently, trace-back is mostly optional, but if your buyer requires it, then you will need to do it to meet their requirements.  Typically, trace-back is a “case” level marking, rather than an individual product marking (that is showing up more and more). Here is a simple version of the idea of trace-back to get you familiarized with the idea.

This Japanese farmer has his face on his product! The boxy-thing to the left of his photo is a Quick Code (QC); a machine readable trace-back code that can even be read by a smart phone.

Working with the United Fresh Produce Association, in April 2011 we have came up with a more detailed view of what will be required as time goes on – certainly, things can change, but this is the basic framework for most farms: The Produce Traceability Initiative (PTI): A Primer for Hawaii’s Small-Farm Operators.