Tracing the Path of Food Poisoning

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Consumers wonder why it takes government so long to identify what foods are causing illnesses and to get those foods out of the marketplace. When someone falls ill, time is of the essence. No one knows this more than the victims of foodborne illness and their families, who are committed to food safety reform so that the tragedy they faced doesn't strike others.

It's common sense. By tracing products back more quickly, we can limit the number of people who become ill. We can also learn what caused the contamination and put steps in place to keep it from happening again. And we can target our recalls and other containment efforts to limit disruption of the food supply and harm to the industry.

Unfortunately, our ability to trace many foods back to their origin is lacking--especially with foods such as fruits and vegetables that often have no labels. Even tracing foods with better identification faces roadblocks such as poor record-keeping along the farm-to-table chain. I've traveled around the country to learn about the diversity of operations and distribution systems and nowhere is the challenge more clear than with the vast variety of products for which FDA is responsible, from lettuce grown on a farm to cereal produced and packaged in a plant.

It's important to solve the problem in a way that considers the diversity of foods, the way they are produced, and the way they travel through the marketplace.

Fortunately, we are seeing more attention focused on fixing the problem. In July, the President's Food Safety Working Group recommended the development of a food tracing system that shortens the time between outbreaks and finding the source. This week, FDA and USDA held a public meeting to work with all of our stakeholders--including state and local governments, consumers and the industry--on defining what characteristics a food tracing system should have.

I see a commitment to working together to find solutions. Many food companies have already implemented product tracing systems, and we certainly want to take advantage of industry innovation. Three that were mentioned at the meeting included bar coding and radio frequency, like an ear tag on cattle. At the public meeting, USDA Deputy Under Secretary Jerry Mande called attention to product tracing advances found in Asia and Europe, where products are featured with phone numbers and photos of producers throughout commerce.

It's important to solve the problem in a way that considers the diversity of foods, the way they are produced, and the way they travel through the marketplace. We must have a system that protects consumers but it also must help industry recover as quickly as possible after an outbreak.

A lot of questions still need answers, and these were laid out at the public meeting by one of our experts, Sherri McGarry. For example, how far, backwards or forwards, should products be able to be traced? Should this depend on the type of product based on its potential risk? How do we make a system work globally?

These aren't easy questions, and we will need to consider factors like technological feasibility and cost to industry and consumers, while staying focused on our primary mission of protecting the public's health. There's a lot of work ahead, but the result will be well worth the effort.

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Michael Taylor is Deputy Commissioner for Foods at the Food and Drug Administration, where he is responsible for food safety and nutrition labeling.

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