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 June 9, 2009

Jeannie Houchins, MA, RD

Tracking Produce from Farm to Consumer

Anaheim, CA -- Identifying a killer, locating point of origin and notifying the public to stay away from it are all parts of a food contamination outbreak investigation.

“We need to get back to the source. Ultimately we’re trying to find out what were the roots of contamination,” said Sherri McGarry, a scientist at the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. She was speaking during a scientific session called “Fresh Produce Tracing: Benefits and Challenges.” Like detectives, McGarry and her colleagues may have to sort out a microscopic killer concealed among many potential problem products. And then prevent the contamination from happening again.

Just as with a violent crime, investigators can have trouble sorting out the evidence. From the victims, who may have trouble remembering what they had to eat days before, to the source of contamination on the farm, the elements of the investigation can be complex. It can be difficult even locating the scene of the “crime” or when it occurred.

Traceability is at the center of food safety, and so necessary for such an investigation to proceed, said Andrew Kennedy, President of FoodLogiQ LLC in Durham, North Carolina. Food producers will want to adopt good tracing programs for their products because it provides supply chain efficiency and lower inventory costs. But when public food safety issues arise, traceability can protect public health and bring back consumer trust.

“You can quickly identify the source and scope of issues,” Kennedy said of finding traceable elements in epidemiology outbreaks. “There are a lot of people getting sick while you’re trying to find out where it came from,” said Andrew Kennedy, President of FoodLogiQ LLC in Durham, North Carolina.

Even when food borne illness issues are resolved, it can be a long time before public trust is restored. Kennedy said that a 2005 spinach contamination issue has caused slow retail spinach sales to this day.

For this reason, it is disconcerting that less than 5 percent of US growers have advanced bar code traceability systems, Kennedy said. Canadian growers have almost 100 percent traceability. That is being remedied with The Produce Traceability Initiative, an industry-backed drive that has the backing of the FDA.

The goal over the next three years is to introduce a standardized approach to the tracking of produce, and to achieve supply chain-wide adoption of electronic traceability of every case of produce by 2012.

“The goal is 6 billion cases per year (traceable) by 2012,” Kennedy said, with different stages of implementation coming in gradually. By the end of 2009, UPC codes should be locked in with producers, packers and shippers as well as retailers.

The good news is that growers in general recognize the value of traceability. Kennedy cited a FoodLogiQ survey of growers in North Carolina, which revealed that growers know retail chains are demanding traceability and growers need it to sell to them. There are many reasons for growers to buy into tracking systems that can cost them $1,000 for the equipment alone, including bringing them the ability to market their specialized products and prove their origins.

But ultimately, the big selling point is that traceability enables government detectives to track down killer contaminants and warn the public before more damage is done.

Sherri McGarry
FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition

Andrew Kennedy
FoodLogiQ LLC


About IFT
Founded in 1939, the Institute of Food Technologists is a nonprofit scientific society with more than 20,000 individual members working in food science, food technology, and related professions in industry, academia, and government. IFT serves as a conduit for multidisciplinary science thought leadership, championing the use of sound science through knowledge sharing, education, and advocacy.
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