Emergency Regs Needed for Tracking Produce, Food Groups Say
Traceability Would Help Officials Respond More Quickly to Outbreaks
Food safety and consumer watchdogs at the Center for Science in the Public Interest and the Consumer Federation of America are today making an urgent plea to Dr. Andrew von Eschenbach, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration: Protect Americans from unsafe food by implementing emergency regulations requiring traceability for produce. The groups say that if fruits and vegetables can be tracked back up through the supply chain back to the farm, investigators would have an easier time nailing down the source of outbreaks of Salmonella, E. coli, and other dangerous pathogens.
“Effective traceability labeling must encompass the multiple steps along the path from farm to table, including farm-of-origin, packer, distributor, and retailer,” the groups wrote in a letter to von Eschenbach. “Such a system should use a standardized code for all FDA-regulated items to streamline investigations and ensure effective record-keeping by all entities along the production chain.”
Major players in the produce business already know how to use the basic technology needed for traceability: little stickers on fruits and vegetables. The industry already has standard price look-up codes, or PLUs, that retailers can use at the register. Tomatoes that bear a sticker with the number 4087 are red Roma tomatoes, for instance. But similar standardized codes could let retailers, food safety investigators, or even curious consumers know exactly what farm a given bunch of asparagus or bag of spinach hails from.
Photo credit: Jeff Cronin
“Each outbreak causes huge losses, both for the consumers who become severely ill and for the growers, who often can’t sell their products,” said CSPI food safety director Caroline Smith DeWaal. “Unfortunately, as this investigation has dragged on, the produce industry is reaping what it sowed when it sought and received special exemptions that allowed the industry to avoid the country of origin labeling requirements Congress passed in 2002. While new requirements are scheduled to go into effect later this year, FDA needs to go beyond country of origin labeling and give public health officials the ability to trace produce from the fork back to the farm.”
Although the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control are casting a wider net to locate the food source responsible for the current Salmonella outbreak, CSPI says the public should still follow the FDA’s current advice which tomatoes to eat and which to avoid.
“If FDA had put a traceability system in place two years ago following the spinach outbreak, this current investigation might be moving more quickly,” said Chris Waldrop, Director of the Food Policy Institute at Consumer Federation of America. “This latest outbreak demonstrates very clearly the need for the federal government to quickly and easily trace an implicated food to its source.”
The letter from CFA and CSPI also urges the agency to require growers and packers to implement written food safety plans, similar to the hazard control plans that have proved successful in reducing bacterial contamination of fresh meat and poultry. CSPI has been encouraging the FDA to require such plans since 2006.
“Traceability is essential to a 21st century food safety system,” said House Energy and Commerce Committee Vice Chair Diana DeGette (D-CO). “It is possible to trace the origins of our foods. Most of our food products already have labels, many companies already know their suppliers, and the technology already exists. Unfortunately, we have a broken food safety system in this country that cannot determine the source of tainted foods while consumers continue to get sick. Traceability will allow us to quickly identify the source of contamination while protecting the American consumer and industry’s bottom-line.”
When distributors mix and match produce from different sources, a practice called “repacking” in the industry, they should be required to maintain the identifying marks or labels that would allow FDA to determine the origin, according to the food safety groups.
Since 1990, CSPI has tracked over 700 outbreaks of foodborne illness linked to produce items, including two dozen outbreaks linked to tomatoes that have caused more than 3,000 illnesses.
While 869 have been sickened in the current outbreak, foodborne illness is dramatically underreported, so the actual number of illnesses is likely many times higher. Today’s letter to von Eschenbach is signed by DeWaal, Waldrop, and CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson.
Contact Jeff Cronin (jcronin[at]cspinet.org) or Ariana Stone (astone[at]cspinet.org).