Making U.S. food safe, II: Tracing the sources of bad food

Published 13 June 2008

The United States lacks a system for effective tacking and tracing of food supplies as they are distributed throughout the country; one expert says that “Right now the technology [for tracking food] exists, but it’s not being used widely because companies aren’t required to use them”

It used to be the case that people grew vegatables in their back yard. During the First and Second World War, the U.S., British, and Canadian governments encouraged their citizens to create “Victory Gardens” — backyard plots in which vegetables, fruits, and herbs would be planted in order to reduce pressures on the public food supply. Now the situation is different. Before fruits and vegetables end up in your refrigerator, they take a long and winding road from the farm to the store. When problems arise in this complex supply chain, it is exceedingly difficult to trace what happened. Today, it has been nearly two weeks since the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) linked a salmonella outbreak to contaminated tomatoes, and still the agency has not been able to conclusively determine where the tomatoes came from or what caused them to go bad. The FDA said today that 228 people in 23 states have been sickened from tainted tomatoes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Many experts and legislators charged today that the reason is because the United States does not have a system in place to effectively and consistently track the movements of the nation’s fruits and vegetables. “Produce is produced in a very complicated system where you have a lot of movement, a lot of trans-shipment and commingling,” said William Hubbard, a former FDA official now in charge of Alliance for a Stronger FDA. “It makes it very, very difficult to trace a given tomato back to its source,” he said. “If they have a box that’s maybe half full of tomatoes, they might add tomatoes from another box that came from a completely different farm, maybe a different state, even a different part of the country,” said Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. What is more, while packaged bags of produce such as lettuce have bar codes on them to help trace their movement, tomatoes and other produce do not have similar tags.

The complexities of ensuring the safety of the food supply are revealed today in a report released yesterday by the Government Accountability Office (GAO). The report said the FDA’s plan to protect the nation’s food supply is not fleshed out enough to work effectively. “Recent outbreaks such as E. coli from spinach and salmonella from tomatoes have undermined consumer confidence in the safety of the food