A new research report from the food industry shows investigations of leafy greens foodborne illness outbreaks could be streamlined if produce was labeled with traceable codes, something food safety experts have been urging for decades.

For four months food industry researchers reviewed supply chain partners including growers, distributors and both independent and chain retailers, “offering a detailed response to the request by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for improved traceability in the food system,” according to a group announcement from the six industry groups that conducted the pilot projects. 

“The three pilots, conducted July through October, also showed that investigations could be conducted more effectively if supply chain partners provided extended product information during tracebacks,” the announcement states. 

“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.”

Participants told researchers they would adopt the template in the future. Also, the research sponsors said, the pilots revealed opportunities to refine the template and highlighted the need for a greater focus on education for future use of it, including additional industry training and modifications to maximize effectiveness and increase ease of use.

The three pilots 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 the FDA’s role in conducting the traceback, including determining the data to be requested and how to format the requests for such data. 

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. 

“Notably, the data that enabled each of the teams to independently and successfully identify the finished product lot purchased by the consumer is not currently captured by the template,” the report states. 

“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.”

Bryan Hitchcock, executive director of IFT’s Global Food Traceability Center, said the pilots provided insight that will inform future outbreak responses and recall protocols, helping industry to work together to support the FDA’s focus on tech-enabled traceability. 

The six organizations that led this industry activity were: FMI-The Food Industry Association; GS1 US; the International Foodservice Distributors Association (IFDA); the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT); Produce Marketing Association (PMA) and United Fresh Produce Association (United Fresh).

For more information on the pilots, please visit https://ift.org/leafygreens.

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