In the United States, there are around six billion cases of produce shipped each year and every now and then, some of it is contaminated. Factory automation technology is now being harnessed to help improve the traceability of any contamination.

To identify the source of contaminated produce quickly and accurately, the Canadian Produce Marketing Association (Ottawa, Ontario, Canada; www.cpma ), Produce Marketing Association (Newark, DE; www.pma.com ), and United Fresh Produce Association Washington, DC;www.unitedfresh.org ) formed the Produce Traceability Initiative (PTI; www.producetraceability.org ) to help produce companies and their buyers to move toward achieving complete food chain traceability of their products by establishing a common framework and nomenclature for product identification.

The PTI is based on a 14-digit Global Trade Item Number (GTIN) that is assigned to every possible type of case based on the commodity, subtype, size, count, area of origin, grower, and packer. The GTIN along with the lot number is provided in human readable form and encoded in a barcode on each case. Each subsequent handler then needs to read and store the GTIN and lot number from each case of produce received. In case of a problem, this makes it possible to quickly trace goods through each handling stage to their source.

Previously, produce packaging was difficult to trace because each customer used a customized package and workers stamped product specifications onto each packed filled. In order to implement PTI compliance, there needed to be a way turn the rubber stamps into both human and machine-readable labels.

Sun Pacific (Pasadena, CA; www.sunpacific.com ), the largest grower, packer and marketer of citrus fruits in the United States, recently overcame this challenge by implementing the HarvestMark PTI from YottaMark (Redwood City, CA;www.harvestmark.com ) in conjunction with the VR-3000 vision inspection system from Saber Engineering (Auburn, CA; www.sabereng.com ) in fifteen of its packing houses.

In operation, the self-contained VR-3000 system distinguishes between the different types of packages and stamps and recognizes and verifies attributes such as type of shipping container, commodity and size at speeds of up to 3,100 boxes per hour. This information is then stored on the HarvestMark database for processing. Trace-back, trace-forward and production data is hosted on the HarvestMark system, delivering supply chain reporting and enabling on-demand traceability anywhere in the supply chain.

With this more automated, universal system, produce will be more easily traced from field to store shelf. This will allow for a higher level of consumer safety and easier oversight when faced with a contamination.

To read more, visit Vision Systems Design.