The government’s system for tracing foods is full of potentially dangerous gaps that could undermine the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) ability to quickly find the source of a food-borne illness or bioterrorism attack, according to a new federal report released yesterday.
The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) inspector general’s office conducted a test of the food tracing system and found most companies don’t keep those records.
Investigators were able to trace 5 out of 40 foods including eggs, bottled water and tomatoes, back from the retailer to the source.
The inspector general's report said most facilities do not keep records with specific lot numbers that would facilitate the tracing of foods.
Federal investigators identified the facilities that most likely handled 31 of the 40 products tested, but they were unable to identify the facilities that handled four of the items, which amounts to 10 percent of the total.
According to the report, 70 of 118 facilities included in the test failed to meet the FDA’s recording keeping requirements for information pertaining to suppliers, customers and shippers. Some companies claim they didn’t know about the requirements while others contend that recordkeeping is too difficult.
“The lack of adequate records, limits the ability to trace food products through each stage of the food supply chain back to the farm or border,” said HHS Inspector General Daniel Levinson.
A bioterrorism law enacted in 2002, requires food makers, distributors and processors to keep records showing where products came from and to whom they are sold – enabling the FDA to use the records to track a product when there is a serious health threat.
Reps. Bart Stupak and John Dingell, both Michigan Democrats, as well as others want to extend bioterrorism reporting requirements to cover restaurants and farms, which are currently exempt.
According to Stephanie Kwisnek, an FDA spokeswoman, the agency is developing guidance to improve the industry’s recordkeeping and help the agency trace food contaminants. She also said they are working with HHS and other federal and state agencies to “identify ways of strengthening our ability to protect Americans from foodborne illness.”
The agency has come under fire in the wake of several high-profile recalls, including a salmonella outbreak involving peanut products which has sickened nearly 700 and may have killed nine people. Last year FDA investigators struggled for weeks to identify the cause of a salmonella outbreak initially blamed on tomatoes. Eventually, hot peppers from Mexico were discovered to be the source of the outbreak.
The Bush Administration killed a plan that would require the food industry to maintain electronic records. At the time, food companies said keeping detailed records was too costly and could disrupt the availability of fresh produce.
But with the new administration now in power, the issue is likely to be revisited. President Barack Obama has already launched a review of the government’s food safety system and several bills have been introduced in Congress. #