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Pilot project for the identification and traceability of lettuce

laitueThis pilot project was initiated by the Comité sectorial sur la traçabilité en horticulture (CSTH*). The objective was to design and test a traceability system that includes the following criteria: identification of premises and stakeholders, identification of products (both boxes and pallets) and tracking of product movement. In addition, the system must be simple, efficient, economical and transferable to other fruit and vegetable productions, while at the same time, being adaptable to other initiatives by the sector (CPMA, PMA, UF, and CHC**) and to the needs of all the links of the horticultural supply chain.

In all, nine businesses participated in the project, namely six producers/packers of field-grown lettuce and three producers/packers of greenhouse lettuce. The businesses were selected based on their size and their level of traceability. Some of them had already reached a very high level of traceability, while others only started the process with this project.

Each business was first asked to identify its products and to record all necessary information for traceability in a form of register, as well as to test at least two types of equipment that could identify their packing boxes and pallets. The system was then tested during recall simulations organized by government authorities (MAPAQ and CFIA).

How to identify the products?

Two identification solutions were proposed, namely one called "basic" and the other that meets GS1 standards. The identification system suggested by GS1 is not only recognized worldwide but it also represents a clear-cut trend in the fruit and vegetable industry. The United States has adopted this system in their traceability efforts, known as "Produce Traceability Initiative." This initiative is a joint effort by the PMA, the CPMA and the UF. Therefore, for the CSTH, it was essential to integrate this type of identification, which is based on the use of barcodes, into the lettuce pilot project.

1- The "basic" solution

2- GS1 Solution

The basic solution consists of identifying the stakeholder by a number that is provided by Agri-Traçabilité Québec. This number is composed of ten digits. The first seven digits form a code that is unique for each producer/packer. Furthermore, if the packer is a wholesaler, for example, the final three digits are used to identify the farm at which the product was grown.

 

pilote4The identification of boxes includes a first line showing the stakeholder's number and a second line showing a reference number. For the reference number, three options were proposed to the participating businesses: a date, a sequential number or a date combined with a distinct code (field number, trough number, etc.). The stakeholder's number followed by the reference number forms the product's lot number.

 

For pallets, the following formula was used: the stakeholder's number followed by a sequential number. The producer could choose between a daily or yearly sequence.

pilote1The GS1 solution, on the other hand, is more complex. Boxes are identified with a series of 14 digits which form the GTIN (Global Trade Item Number). This number is, in turn, formed by a "business prefix", followed by a "product code." For the purpose of this project, a lot number was also added after the GTIN, in order to be more precise with regard to the origin of the product and to be able to link it to a field or a location in the greenhouse.

 

As for the pallets, a Serial Shipping Container Code (SSCC) is used to identify them. This number is composed of 18 digits; that is, a business prefix followed by a sequential code. In this way, each pallet is unique, similar to the basic solution.

Which equipment to use?

Which equipment to use?

pilote2For the identification of boxes, a manual labeller (price labeller) proved to be the most popular solution among the participants, because of its ease and rapidity of use. However, it must be linked with another solution for the identification of pallets.

 

pilote3A second solution is the combination: pre-printed labels with a numbering stamp. Thus, the stakeholder's number is already printed on the labels and a reference number is then added using a numbering stamp. However, this solution was rejected by the larger businesses (too much handling). This method can also be used to identify pallets.

 

What these first two solutions had in common was a very reasonable price for the basic equipment. To this must be added the cost of labels, which can vary depending on several factors: the type of material and glue, the label size and the quantities ordered. One of the advantages of both of these equipments is that they offer the flexibility to be able to rapidly change the reference number. This flexibility was much appreciated by producers, since changes often occur during the harvesting process and it is important to be able to make any modifications on the go. As a result, both of these equipments can be efficiently used if the basic solution is chosen.

pilote5The most flexible solution is the use of a thermal transfer printer, coupled with software to design the labels. Furthermore, we tested three variations of this solution for lettuce producers.

 

pilote6The most versatile of the three consisted of installing the printer in an office to produce the labels ahead of time, and then bringing them to the packing site. The labels were then attached using a manual applicator. In this way, labels of various formats can be prepared depending on their planned use (boxes, pallets, etc.). However, any changes on the labels must be planned prior to use, thus requiring very good communications between the harvesting team and the person producing the labels in the office.

 

pilote7For producers of field lettuce, we also tested the installation of a thermal transfer printer directly on the harvesting equipment. A laptop computer was used to transmit the data necessary to generate the labels. However, this option restricts the use of the printer to products harvested by this one machine.

 

pilote8Finally, an integrated system allowing the identification to be automated was also tested in a greenhouse operation. This system was able to simultaneously generate the label information, to print the label and to apply it to the box as it moved along a conveyor belt.

Among these three options, only the first one allowed the flexibility of easily printing labels for both boxes and pallets. However, the other two solutions had the advantage of being able to change the information on the label directly at the packing site. The basic investment cost for the equipment also increases from one option to the next. To this must be added the cost of the labels and, of course, the labour costs. The use of the GS1 solution also requires an additional expense related to obtaining a business prefix from GS1.

Businesses that tested both solutions for product identification (basic solution and GS1) preferred the basic solution for its ease of use, its lower investment cost and because it is easily adapted to those who have already introduced a traceability system for their products.

How to trace the products?

A list of essential data for traceability was drawn up and presented to the participating producers/packers. Data registers were provided in order to complete any missing information, if necessary.

To test the proposed systems, two product recall simulations were set up by MAPAQ and CFIA. In both cases, it was possible to trace the origin of the products back to the producer and to find the information regarding the destination of the products. However, the exercise did reveal that communications remains as the weak point in the whole traceability process. Therefore, in every business, in every link of the supply chain, more than one person must be informed about the record keeping, the codes and the systems being used.

What next?

The CSTH is continuing its work on traceability in the horticultural sector. The pilot project on lettuce provided a foundation on which to build, both for other fruit and vegetable crops and for the integration of other stakeholders in the supply chain (transporters, distributors, retailers). Thus, it is an on-going process... and you could be a part of it!

 

* The CSTH's members are :

  • Ministère de l’Agriculture, des Pêcheries et de l’Alimentation du Québec (MAPAQ)
  • Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA)
  • Union des producteurs agricoles (UPA)
  • Fédération des producteurs maraîchers du Québec (FPMQ)
  • Syndicat des producteurs en serre du Québec (SPSQ)
  • Fédération des producteurs de pommes du Québec (FPPQ)
  • Fédération des producteurs de pommes de terre du Québec (FPPTQ)
  • Association des producteurs de fraises et framboises du Québec (APFFQ)
  • Association des Emballeurs de Pommes du Québec (AEPQ)
  • VegPro International, representing lettuce packers
  • Canadian Horticultural Council (CHC)
  • Agri-Traçabilité Québec (ATQ)

** Acronym list :

  • CPMA : Canadian Produce Marketing Association
  • PMA : Produce Marketing Association
  • UF : United Fresh Produce Association
  • CHC : Canadian Horticultural Council

 

This project was made possible through financial support from the Advancing Canadian Agriculture and Agrifood (ACAAF) program. This Agriculture and Agrifood Canada (AAFC) program is delivered by the intermediary organization, Conseil pour le développement de l'agriculture du Québec (CDAQ)."

 

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