While some produce goes from field to consumer in a relatively straightforward manner, sometimes even being packed for shipment in the field itself, most produce goes through a more complicated process in a processing facility.
Believe it or not, tracking produce from the field to the processing facility and from the facility to the shelf is not as difficult as it might seem. The real problems may be inside the processing plant and in the processes themselves.
So, let’s look at the easy part first. Using GPS and an RFID or barcode-tagged carton or pallet, the geographic source of the produce (e.g., section of a field or orchard) can be precisely identified.
Once produce leaves the facility, RFID or barcodes on pallets and cartons can again be used to follow the produce to the customer—a store, restaurant or other processing facility. Bagged or packaged produce can be tracked with GS1 barcodes with product code and batch number (a type of Serialized Global Trade Item Number or SGTIN).
A side note: In a recent recall of lettuce, Dole used tracking information from RFIDtagged pallets to minimize the size of the recall to two batch numbers that might have been contaminated.
In the near future, even individual pieces of loose produce (e.g., apples, tomatoes) could be labeled with a very small GS1 DataBar Expanded Stacked barcode with an SGTIN that could include alphanumeric characters for batch number, which many companies prefer to use.
Okay, it will not necessarily be easy to implement these technologies, but there are technical solutions available. The more difficult issues for some companies may be determining exactly how to handle batches with greater granularity than they currently do.
Let’s look at apples as an example. Apples packed into transport containers in the orchard can be easily identified. However, once they arrive at the processing plant, they will, at the very least, be washed and wax coated. These are continuous processes. How and where do you define what constitutes a particular batch? Would it be every truckload? Every apple that comes from that orchard? Every shift? And, how do you segregate the apples in one batch from the next?
If the apples are not destined for consumption whole, then they may not be packed in transport containers and only identifiable by the truck. This would also be true for items, such as potatoes, which are harvested into trucks or trailers, not hand picked. While it will be possible to identify precisely where that truck or trailer load came from, further processing would likely necessitate combining multiple loads into a single batch. Again, it’s a matter of determining how to define a batch for traceability.
For apples that are turned into applesauce (or oranges into orange juice), it’s more problematic. Mixing produce from different sources increases the number of batches that would be affected by a recall. Maintaining fine granularity of batch sizes might require significant process changes.
Certainly, the use of RFID or barcodes for tracking bins, vats, etc., within a facility can help with batch control for discretely processed items or smaller batches. However, for continuous processes,
| Bert Moore is a 20-year veteran of the AIDC industry. He is director of IDAT Consulting & Education, Alpharetta, Ga. |
you have to weigh the benefits of small batches against the probable process changes that would be required.
So, traceability is really “plant to processing to plate.” Since processing is the middle step, that puts you in the middle of the how-wehandle- a-batch decision. And, that’s the one that counts.