Growing up, when something broke around the house, one of my brothers would say — as a joke — “Better get some duct tape.” This saying wasn’t something they came up with on their own. Duct tape was dubbed the be-all-and-end-all problem solver by my grandfather. He was a firm believer in the adhesive power of duct tape to fix just about anything.
Unfortunately, duct tape isn’t going to solve our current food safety problems. You all know the story — all too well, I’m afraid. Just when you think things are calming down, another foodborne illness outbreak is fodder for the media.
The first foodborne illness outbreak that arguably hit growers the hardest occurred in 2006 when bags of spinach contaminated with E. coli made their way through the distribution chain. Then last summer, tomatoes were cited as the culprit of a Salmonella outbreak, costing U.S. tomato producers millions of dollars. And in the end, the source wasn’t tomatoes; it was peppers from Mexico. There were, and I’m sure still are, very angry tomato growers who were erroneously called on the carpet for their produce.
Lettuce, too, has been at the heart of foodborne illness investigations, and now it is peanut butter. This latest foodborne illness outbreak is really growing legs, especially since peanut butter is an ingredient in so many food products.
Resolving The Problem
There are so many places where produce can be contaminated — from the farm to how it is handled by the end consumer. The questions are: When an outbreak occurs, how do we determine where the contamination took place? How do we make sure we are targeting the correct food item as the culprit? And, how do we go about successfully tracing back the product to the source of the outbreak?
Well, as usual, there isn’t a simple solution. As we all know, FDA was at the heart of last summer’s tomato debacle. I was with some tomato growers who visited FDA at the United Public Policy Conference last September. They wanted some explanations as to why their produce was falsely accused of being the source of contamination. Now, there is talk of overhauling FDA.
In fact, last month legislation was introduced to possibly divide FDA into two agencies. One agency would be for food safety and the other would be for the regulation of drugs and medical devices.
While talk continues in Washington, some industry groups are making moves of their own. Specifically, the United Fresh Produce Association, the Produce Marketing Association, and the Canadian Produce Marketing Association have launched a website, Producetraceability.org. To back up just a bit, this group started its Produce Traceability Initiative (PTI) in October 2007. The initiative is an industry-led effort to adopt traceability throughout the produce supply chain.
The new website includes resources and educational tools for those wanting to learn more about PTI, a list of companies that support PTI, a bulletin board and question and answer section for industry questions and discussion, a news and events section, a press room containing recent news releases, and contact information.
The overall plan involves adopting a standardized system of case bar-coding for all produce sold in the U.S., so product can be tracked throughout the distribution chain. The idea here is that a standardized system could significantly improve the industry’s ability to narrow the impact of product recalls.
That just might be music to growers’ ears. And it won’t require any duct tape.