Supply chain traceability for fresh fruits and vegetables has come a long way, but it still has a long way to go.

Complete supply chain traceability starts with a label on a case. The industry is doing well in this area. Everywhere I go, traceability labels are easy to spot and all the larger companies seem to be on board. However, for comprehensive supply chain traceability to work, the entire supply chain must participate. This means every company and every brand! After more than a decade of projects and progress, no one can claim ignorance anymore.

To carry out complete supply chain traceability, each stage (node) of the supply chain must dutifully perform their role. This means your company, your connections, and your trading partners need to play ball. Quite a bit has been written about this already by organizations such as GS1, which provides a helpful guide to the responsibilities of each supply chain participant.

But let’s break it down. To keep it simple, let’s divide up the supply chain into a sequence of events or nodes, with a linkage (logistics) between each node.

In the beginning, goods must be created, packed and marked with the proper product identification (GTIN) and lot number. Second, each product must be recorded into the system of record. Then, the traceability data must accompany every logistical movement going forward as the product, with its unique traceability data, moves between companies.

Along this journey it is not uncommon to have multiple companies each managing the harvesting, packing, processing, marketing, distribution and finally selling through a retail or foodservice channel. At times, supply chains can become even more complex with the addition of a third party broker, commercial repacker or consolidation facility. To maintain the chain of custody, each node of the supply chain must:

  1. Receive traceability data with every inbound shipment
  2. Store the appropriate traceability data
  3. Send traceability data onto the next node of the supply chain

Surprising as it may seem, one of the big limitations we still have is inadequate produce industry software systems. Some systems simply cannot receive, store and send traceability data. These limitations are often rooted in obsolete accounting, inventory and e-commerce systems, many of which were first developed more than 20 years ago. They were built in a simpler time, with yesterday’s technology, and are severely limited and obsolete, unable to meet the needs of today.

So, what are we to do? Should we wait for our aging software vendors to fix their accounting, inventory and e-commerce systems? Should we change systems? Or should we add systems, putting more layers into our technology stacks?

Having the correct technology is a fundamental question but first, let’s identify the gaps in your organization and with your trading partners. Once you identify these blind spots, you’ll know where your focus should be directed. How would you score your organization? If you want to dig in you can use this handy guide I recently put together to help our customers score their traceability programs.

Your core systems — the technology you use for financials, receiving, shipping, inventory, warehouse management, e-commerce and logistics — should be powerful tools to help address many of these types of questions. However, if they don’t/won’t/can’t, you may have to go out shopping for something newer and more up to the task. Just make sure to assess your needs carefully, as many newer solutions on the market are still in their infancy and may merely add more costs and complexity to an already-challenging process.

It’s not been easy, and while we may not yet be ready to declare victory when it comes to full supply chain traceability, we are certainly on the right path.

Each organization must eventually answer the call and someday we will have full visibility across all fruits and vegetables and across every participant in the supply chain. If we eventually overcome the gaps, expose the blind spots, weed out the bad actors, provide tools to the FDA, and, in the end, improve health and save lives, we may find ourselves in a world where comprehensive supply chain traceability is the rule rather than the exception in our industry.