PTI/FYI e-news Quarter 1 2016
In This Update
Whole Foods Market Tours Country to Educate Suppliers on Traceability
Q&A with Robin Foster, Team Leader for Responsibly Grown at Whole Foods Market
Since late 2014, Whole Foods Market’s Responsibly Grown program has been providing consumers with the information they increasingly seek out about the foods they eat, including how and where those foods are grown. Whole Foods Market requests that suppliers who participate in its Responsibly Grown rating system comply with Produce Traceability Initiative (PTI) best practices. To further grow the Responsibly Grown rating program and to raise its suppliers’ awareness for the many benefits of traceability and supply chain transparency, Whole Foods Market has embarked on an 11-stop educational tour around the country this year. PTI FYI spoke with Robin Foster, Whole Foods Market’s Team Leader, Responsibly Grown, to learn more about this direct engagement strategy and how PTI adoption is picking up throughout their supplier network.
PTI: How did the idea for the tour come about?
Robin Foster: The main focus of the past year or so has been on getting suppliers through the first two stages of the Responsibly Grown rating system. This includes covering basic practices like insurance coverage, social accountability, traceability and supply chain transparency.
In pursuit of being good partners, we don’t put out mandates or hard deadlines to our suppliers. We really try to work with suppliers to get where we both want to go. Our expectation when we first rolled out Responsibly Grown was that many suppliers were well on their way to PTI compliance. Many of our suppliers did not meet our 2014 PTI timeline, so instead of just advocating PTI compliance, now we’re looking at how we can support suppliers in getting them there. Whole Foods Market is really proud to work with a lot of local and regional growers, in addition to larger national suppliers. So the tour is an opportunity to partner with them to provide training and answer questions face-to-face.
PTI: What is the goal with this direct engagement strategy?
Foster: When we launched the program we focused first on bigger national suppliers whose products we carry in all the stores. After the first year, about 80% of products we buy globally had been through the rating program. This year, we’re focusing on smaller regional suppliers that sell to one or two stores in a region. These folks simply need more information on traceability, food safety and other core requirements. The tour includes 11 stops in several different regions of the country, and we hold all-day meetings to provide training. We have coordinated with FamilyFarms.org, a nonprofit that provides safety training for smaller farms. Ed Treacy, PMA’s vice president, supply chain, has also joined the tour too to help answer some of the questions that deal with the requirements of traceability.
PTI: How much of the all-day meetings includes education on GS1 Standards?
Foster: We cover GS1 Standards from a high level right now, as these farmers are just coming up to speed on the basic requirements of traceability and supply chain visibility. This includes how to put PTI labels on product boxes, how to obtain a GS1 Company Prefix, how to use Global Trade Item Numbers (GTINs) and an overview on why case labeling is helpful. We can take a more advanced approach down the road.
PTI: What has been the response to the tour so far? What types of questions come up most often?
Foster: The tour has been very productive so far. We are working with our regional team to coordinate outreach, and there have been 30-40 attendees at each meeting so far.
We have found that knowledge varies widely. Some farmers are hearing about PTI for the first time, so we spend the time to educate them on what PTI is, who the players are, and why it was developed. We also want them to know how they can become better engaged.
There is the misperception out there that PTI was created by Whole Foods Market. For some of the small growers, we are the only store they hear from because they don’t sell to other retailers. We explain that it’s an industry-wide initiative, and help give them context about the bigger picture. A lot of suppliers just want to be told to call one company who will help them with everything. But there are a lot of companies who can help, and lots of different levels of technology providers. So they want guidance on how to pick a company to work with, they want to know what kinds of equipment they should invest in and other specifics like that.
PTI: Did Responsibly Grown grow out of a need to address consumer expectations?
Foster: Yes, it is a consumer initiative. Whole Foods Market is looking for ways to communicate information that consumers want to know. And it’s not just for produce. It is for meat, seafood, and even cleaning products – we have used a tiered rating system to provide at-a-glance information to help consumers quickly dig deeper, so that they can be assured that the products they buy were created in a sustainable manner.
From a purchasing department perspective, we want to be able to reward growers who are doing innovative and creative things. Responsibly Grown provides an infrastructure to understand what suppliers are doing on an “above and beyond” level, which can include things like putting a focus on worker welfare, installing solar panels, or making water conservation efforts. So it is definitely consumer-driven, but we are also excited to be able to use it to influence purchase decisions.
PTI: Aside from traceability, do you see other aspects of PTI that interest suppliers?
Foster: Some companies really like how the Responsibly Grown rating allows them to differentiate their products. Right now, about 60% of our products are PTI compliant. As we get closer to 100%, I believe we can help them better capitalize on the efficiency aspect and measure that in more depth. In general, we’re seeing that more retailers need to come on board for this to be effective, and there’s more work to be done to ensure suppliers see the business benefits to be gained with PTI.
Retailer Group Gets PTI Update
As part of an ongoing effort to coordinate produce industry traceability activities with the retailer community, PTI representatives recently gave an update on the initiative to the Food Marketing Institute’s (FMI) Fresh Executive Committee (FEC) and Fresh Foods Leadership Council (FFLC).
PMA’s Joe Watson and United Fresh’s Jeff Oberman traveled to FMI’s Midwinter Conference in late January to update the FMI groups on the status of the produce industry’s implementation of PTI, and to discuss retailer engagement moving forward. Watson and Oberman reported that with the Food Safety Modernization Act’s (FSMA) Produce Rule now final, federally-mandated traceability is now solidly in view on the horizon. Their message was generally favorably received, with some FMI attendees indicating that the Produce Rule would create a greater sense of urgency within their companies.
FMI’s Fresh Executive Committee members are food retailers and wholesalers; 24 banners are represented. The Fresh Foods Leadership Council includes allied trade associations, key suppliers including produce suppliers, and fresh industry thought leaders. FMI has appointed Watson and Oberman to the FFLC. For more information, contact PMA’s Ed Treacy.
Upcoming Events and Resources for Traceability Education
GS1 Connect 2016, the annual conference held by GS1 US, will be held this year in Washington, D.C. from June 1-3, and will offer several sessions to help attendees learn how industry leaders are leveraging their traceability programs for a variety of operational benefits. The retail grocery and foodservice tracks will include topics and presenters addressing traceability, including “Maximizing Benefits from Transitioning to a GS1-128 World.” To learn more and to register, click here.
For on-demand PTI educational resources, including online learning modules, best practice and implementation guidance, please visit https://www.producetraceability.org/resources.