Marketing & Sales Series: Pt 10 ~ Labeling Solutions & the Produce Traceability Initiative (PTI)

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Today, our Marketing & Sales series continues with information on the Produce Traceability Initiative (PTI), including a Q&A with Top 10 Produce founder, John Bailey.

Many members of our farming community are already familiar with PTI regulations and have found labeling solutions that work for them. However, if you’re new to these requirements or are thinking of selling your product outside of direct to consumer sales channels, this is important information to know.

Read on to learn more about how the PTI was developed, what type of labels are required for your product, and why Top 10 Produce may be a great starting point if you’re a small farmer looking into labeling solutions.


Why was the PTI developed?

Federal and state agencies and the produce industry have had difficulty quickly identifying the source of foodborne illnesses, as shown by the difficulty of backtracking outbreaks in recent years. This has prompted the produce industry to work nationally and internationally on an industry-wide, voluntary, electronic Produce Traceability Initiative (PTI). This initiative was started by 48 leading produce companies and is endorsed in the US by the Produce Marketing Association and the United Fresh Produce Association.

Who needs to label?

Not all farms need to follow the PTI system. Use the diagram below to see if your business activity requires participation.

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What needs to be labeled?

Essentially, the idea is that EACH case, box, carton, or large sack (e.g., a 50-lb sack of cabbage) of homogenous produce is marked with a label that is both human- and machine-readable. The label must include a 14-digit Global Trade Item Number (GTIN), consisting of a unique Company Prefix number assigned to the grower (or “brand owner”) by the GS1 Corporation, plus the product code, and a “lot number”, which is recorded in an on-farm log with additional information about the shipment.

It is also possible that in the future each individual piece of produce, such as one apple, could have its own traceability information, but this is beyond the scope of the current effort. There are currently two options to obtain a GS1 United States, GTIN:

Option 1: Individual grower purchases a GS1 number

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In this example, 614141 is the unique Company Prefix, obtained from GS1, for the farm or brand owner (this varies from 6 to 9 digits).

Growers obtain a unique Company Prefix number from the GS1 Corporation. The minimum cost is $750, with an annual renewal fee. This initial cost and the annual renewal fee increases with the number of GTINs required, and the brand owner’s gross revenue.

For example, a farm with $1 million in annual gross revenue with a first-year fee in the $4,000 range for X number of GTINs should expect to pay more in fees if either number (GTINs or revenues) increases. Typically, however, a small farm would need only one unique Company Prefix number, and then specific GTINs for each commodity.

Option 2: Grower sells under another brand name’s number

A grower uses the GS1 number obtained by another business, such as a wholesaler or other buyer (the “brand owner”), whom the grower supplies. Other options include a nationwide small-farm brand available from a company like Top 10 Produce LLC (total annual cost is currently $280 per farm; more details below).

How are labels obtained or generated?

There are four options for a farm to obtain labels:

  • The grower orders labels from a label company.
  • The grower has a printing company e-mail labels to be printed out of the farm’s office.
  • The grower prints his/her labels, using his/her own GTINs, a computer, special software, a printer, and label stock.
  • A buyer might provide the grower with pre-printed labels.

Predicting your need for labels:

If a grower is buying pre-printed labels, he/she will need to predict how many case/box/carton/sack units of a specific product will be harvested over, say, a three-month period. This determines how many “lots” of labels will be needed. Each packet of labels can be used on only one day, but each day more than one packet of labels can be used.

For example, a grower predicts they will, on average, need to order packets of 10 labels for the 10 boxes of basil to be harvested on any one day. If they order packets of 10 labels from a printer and then harvest 10 boxes of basil, they will use one packet of labels. If, however, they have 10 preprinted labels and harvest only 8 boxes of basil that day, 2 labels from the opened packet must be thrown away. If they harvest 11 boxes, using up the first packet of 10, they must open a new packet of 10 labels, use 1 label, and discard the remaining 9 unused labels.


Top 10 Produce offers labeling solutions for small growers:

Top 10 Produce, based in Salinas, CA, is a produce traceability company focused on helping smaller, independent farmers find labeling solutions, at a reasonable price. With members in the US and Canada, Top 10 offers a range of services to help farmers better track their product and meet evolving US labeling requirements.

This week we spoke with John Bailey, Top 10’s founder and executive director, about what his company offers and why smaller farms selling to wholesalers, distributors, or other buyers should seek labeling solutions now, as labeling standards become the norm in the industry.

FarmsReach: What does Top 10 Produce offers farmers?

John Bailey: If you’re a farmer, you want to sell produce to buyers, and some of these buyers require a special label. In order to get this label, you need a GS1 number. You can get this number at GS1 Corporation or through Top 10 Produce.

large_SmallFarmBrandWhen a farm becomes a member of Top 10, they have the choice to use their own brand name on the label (using their own GS1 number) and remain independent or use one of our brand names, where we assign you a GS1. If you are using our GS1 barcodes, then the brand on the item, case, pallet, bag, or whatever you are labeling with that barcode has to be “Top 10”, “Locale”, or “Grower’s Reserve” – our brands. If you are labeling to the case, you can use your own brand on your own items by applying our Grower’s Reserve brand case labels.

Grower’s Reserve on the case lets buyers know that you have reserved the right to label the items at your own discretion. The PTI only requires tracing to the case level, so the Grower’s Reserve label is fully PTI-compliant. Many of our growers sell under their own brands, and use their own GS1 barcodes and our QR codes. These QR codes link the barcodes with specific websites, allowing the customers to view more information about a farm, such as maps, farm profile information, and social media links.

FR: What are your thoughts on the ongoing traceability initiative in general? Do you think it’s progressing smoothly and in the right direction, or have there been obstacles?

JB: Top 10 Produce has participated as a technology & solution provider in the PTI for the past five years. Though progress was slow at first, things are now clearly moving smoothly and in the right direction. There is a standard label format in place and there are various solution providers who can help independent farms to get into compliance quickly and inexpensively.

FR: When do you think it will be required for all farms to have labeling solutions? Why would you recommend a farm get set up now versus when it’s law?

JB: I do not think ALL farms will ever be required to have labeling solutions. Very small farms will remain exempt – probably indefinitely. However, any farm that is trading significant quantities (significant quantities = any farmer that sells their product to a wholesale market) is going to be required to have a solution for at least some of their produce in the next twelve months, because their buyers will be requiring it. If your buyer demands a PTI label, it becomes just another cost of doing business. I think a farm is better off getting set up now so that when a buyer asks if they are PTI-compliant they can answer “yes” and slap a label on the box, rather than miss out on an opportunity to make a sale to a new buyer.

FR: What do you find most farms don’t know about the PTI and/or labeling solutions?

JB: Most farms don’t realize that all labeling solutions boil down to is a label with a number on a box. It’s not rocket science, and it should not be treated as such. Additionally, most farms don’t realize that it’s easy to find labeling solutions for just a portion of your product. For example, if you’re a farmer that sells 90% of your produce directly to consumers, and the other 10% goes through a third-party – wholesaler, distributer – you’ll need a label for that 10%. Just because less of your product is going through third-party channels, doesn’t mean those channels won’t require proper labeling. And to get proper labeling, it’s a fairly straight forward process and can be really inexpensive.

FR: Okay, so please tell us more specifics about how your program works?

large_CA0002JB: Our program works like an agricultural services cooperative. All new members pay the same annual membership fee of $280.00 per year. As members, they are entitled to membership services, which include: label design and GS1 number assignment to comply with the PTI, and marketing of their farm through social media. Our website, OurLocale, highlights our growers to industry leaders and buyers much like Facebook. We also promote our growers, regardless of which brand they’re using (ours or their own), through Twitter and personal referrals. We want our growers to succeed across the industry, and we do what we can to market them and their product availability to potential new business.

FR: Can you explain why label design matters and what a GS1 number is?

JB: Label design matters because if your product isn’t labeled properly with the correct numbers, in the correct format, it will be rejected. I’ve seen shipments large and small rejected from the buyer because they aren’t in compliance. The farmer loses money and the product goes to waste.

A GS1 is a global not-for-profit organization that has exclusive rights to provide the traceability numbers or GTINs required for compliance with the PTI. If you are selling to a wholesaler, who then resells or distributes to a store or restaurant, you will eventually need to label your cases/boxes/cartons with a GTIN barcode. If you deliver directly to a grocery store or restaurant, you will not need GTINs.

FR: Is there a relationship among the farms that sign up via Top 10 Produce, or are each of the farm’s numbers uniquely their own?

JB: No, each farm has their own unique GTIN barcodes and UPC.

FR: What types of farms are a good fit for your system/program? Can you share which farms or demographic of farms have signed up with you?

JB: Our member farms are typically 40-400 acres in size, but we also have member farms with thousands of acres. So, though we are known nationally as “The Small Farm Brand”, that really only applies to the Top 10 trademark, which requires a farm to be located on only one parcel of land. Our other trademarks can be used by larger farms, and we also assign GTIN numbers for brands owned by our members before they join up with us.

FR: What does it include/entail (i.e., paperwork, time, approval process, cost, other)?

JB: Our program membership application requires a phone call and a payment of the $280.00 membership fee. Licensing of our trademarks requires the grower to sign a trademark license agreement. Once a membership is paid, and a trademark license agreement is signed, our company confirms that the member is an agricultural producer, does some due diligence on their operation, and assigns product numbers to all of their products and pack styles. This process is simple, and can be accomplished with a phone call followed by an email and a fax.

FR: Can you explain why you have to sign a TM agreement? 

JB: Legally, buyers need to know who and where a product comes from. Our trademarks are not meant to control the grower, but to protect them from other people using their brand names. Our brands are trademarked, and if a grower uses our brands, they fall under this trademark umbrella.

large_Top10FR: Aside from being more affordable, how does it differ from the conventional traceability solutions offered larger farms?

JB: Our program is cheaper and better. We were one of the first companies to pioneer this model and have been watching the industry since the beginning. I’ve been a member of the PTI labeling group that devised these regulations since the beginning. When you join Top 10, you join a team, and I listen to our members and advocate for them on a national level.

We also require far less paperwork, we haven’t raised our prices since 2010, and we don’t require our members to purchase any particular software systems. We’re bringing new products online to increase revenue, but don’t want to gauge our farmer members. We’re more concerned with getting our members to be PTI-compliant than anything else.

FR: Anything else you would like to share with our community?

JB: Farmers need to ask other farmers with operations similar to their own what they are using to meet traceability requirements set by their buyers – before deciding on the best solution provider for their needs. One size does not fit all, and the best source of information is a farmer with a similar operation. I am very pleased each time we get a new member based on a referral from one of our existing customers because I know that we can solve a problem for them, and that we will have a loyal customer for years to come!


Thank you, John and the authors of the PTI Primer for this insightful information. To learn more about Top 10 Produce or for questions about PTI compliance, get in touch with John: jbailey@top10produce.com

We’re continuing to expand the Marketing & Sales Toolkit, so stay tuned for more resources.

If you happened to miss them, check out our other features in the Marketing & Sales series:

If you have questions or words of wisdom about selling at the farmers market, visit FarmsReach Conversations and post a question or comment!

If you have other great resources to share, get in touch. We’d love to hear from you.

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