Jan 9, 2018
Framework code set for digitally sharing food safety audits

Produce Marketing Association (PMA) and Purdue University recently released open-source code for Trellis, a digital framework for exchanging food safety audits between growers, audit firms, trading partners and distributors.

Trellis code was designed specifically for the produce industry, and is meant to replace unwieldy practices that rely heavily on emailing PDF files or even snail-mailing paper documents.

PMA and Purdue University’s Open Ag Technologies and Systems Group (OATS) officials who oversaw and worked on the project hope the framework will see use soon.

“I expect by the end of (2017), we will have people using this,” said PMA Vice President of Supply Chain Efficiencies Ed Treacy.

More than audit scores

The idea for the project came from PMA’s new science and technology committee, a group of volunteers, Treacy said. Companies were not able to efficiently extract the information from the PDF documents from audit companies.

“You could pay the people to key the information into a database, and do the data analysis after it was keyed into a data warehouse, but that was very, very time consuming,” he said. “The other thing was, there are very limited resources within each company on food safety. They only have so many people, so many hours. And they really want to spend their time doing proper risk assessment, rather than just making sure they had audits for the right products that were current and got the minimum acceptable score.”

For food safety professionals, raw audit scores often don’t tell the whole story, Treacy said.

“Two companies could get audited, and both could end up with a 90 on their audit,” he said. “One could have done everything right except they filled everything out in pencil – they get a 90. The other could have got a 90 because they didn’t have facilities for their employees to wash their hands after they went to the bathroom. The risk of doing business with both of those companies is significantly different.”

Traditional PDF-and-paper audits are also susceptible to alteration.

“There have been reported cases of people falsifying cases or audits,” Treacy said. One example of this, he said, are monthly reports from the USDA that often detail products incorrectly labeled as organic. “I think this will add value on the organic side,” he said.

The Trellis framework code would allow growers and auditors to share food safety audits for others in the supply chain.

How it works

Trellis’ open-source code is free to the industry, and works by providing a digital framework for peer-to-peer exchanges of authenticated food safety audits and other customer-required information. Trellis is a peer-to-peer framework for communication, and data exchanged would not be collected or stored in a centralized location. Trellis does include a distributed single sign-on (SSO) mechanism that allows users to use a single set of login credentials for accessing other users of the framework.

Trellis won’t change audit contents or questions, but may bring consistency to how the data is recorded, stored and transmitted, so that the supply chain can get more value from the data.

While the Trellis code is free and open-source, the data itself remains secure on the systems of the auditors, the growers, and anyone else in the supply chain with whom they choose share the data.

“The data is not open – the data is fully secure, and private and permissioned and you have full control over who gets what,” said OATS group senior research engineer Aaron Ault. “It’s the code and the framework that is open – it’s the stuff that defines the language that anybody can use. But when it comes to the data, that’s completely controlled and secured by the people involved.”

Ault said a tech-savvy grower might be able to download the code and run Trellis from a laptop or home computer. Those less technically inclined might consider using a third-party provider, or even just leaving such matters to their auditors.

“Nobody has to do anything,” Ault said. “They can continue to get email PDFs from their certification body if that’s what they like.”

What’s next?

PMA and OATS have launched the website www.TrellisFramework.org to provide more information and the free computer code. A toolkit is being developed to help companies to adopt Trellis.

Now that Trellis’ development phase is completed, PMA will hand off governance of it to OATS, which will establish an industry governing body of stakeholders. Initially, that governing body will be PMA Trellis task force members.

Trellis will support the most widely-used audit schemes, and more can easily be added as needed. Many audit scheme owners are aware of and supportive of Trellis.

PMA is reaching out to certification bodies, and encouraging growers, packers and shippers to notify their certification bodies to request Trellis capability. “Making all of our food safety audit information operational is a complicated and resource intensive process,” said Mark Mignogna, vice president of food safety with Sysco. “Trellis will simplify the process freeing up our food safety resources to focus on extracting more value from the information.”

Among some of the additional work that could be done would be developing application programming interfaces (API’s). One example of an API would be an app to populate audit data from an Excel spreadsheet – another example would be an app to translate received Trellis audits into different formats, for example, for storage in a data warehouse.

For Ault, the task is finding out who is interested in Trellis and what they need to use the code.

“Our primary goal is building community around the open-source project,” he said.

Funding from Azzule Systems, Centricity and Wilson Produce will pay for a graduate student at Purdue OATS to begin developing API’s.

“We wanted to support this project because improving the safety of fresh produce is a critical industry priority and our company’s commitment,” said Guillermo Martinez, general manager of Wilson Produce.

— Stephen Kloosterman, assistant editor


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