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Study: U.S. food facilities flunk record-keeping test

Revelations of holes in U.S. food tracking system have some mulling regulatory solutions, while others tout technology fixes.

By Mark B. Solomon |

Since 2005, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has required U.S. food facilities to maintain records identifying the source, recipient, and transporter of food products. The goal was to allow the FDA to trace food through each stage of the supply chain if the agency believed the product was tainted and posed a public health threat.

However, a March 2009 report by the Inspector General's office of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) revealed that 59 percent of the 118 facilities surveyed failed to meet the FDA's record-keeping requirements. The report, Traceability in the Food Supply Chain, said 20 percent of the facilities did not provide all of the required information about the sources of the food, 52 percent failed to provide full information about the recipients, and 46 percent did not supply complete data on the transporters of the goods. One-quarter of the facilities were not even aware of the FDA's requirements, the HHS report found.

One problem, according to the report, is a lack of IT tools needed to connect the dots. "In some cases, managers had to look through large numbers of records—some of them paper-based—for contact information," the report noted. In addition, some facilities couldn't integrate record-keeping systems to link suppliers and recipients to specific shipments or carriers, forcing facility managers to search through separate databases to identify the participants, the report found.

In a world where tracing technologies such as bar-code labeling have become commonplace, why is the food supply chain seemingly stuck in the last century? The reasons, according to Cristina DeMartini, market development leader at the Vernon Hills, Ill.-based supply chain technology supplier Zebra Technologies International LLC, are related to price and competitive paranoia. "The food industry has been slow to adopt because of the cost of the technology and worries that competitors will have access to vital information," she says.

Zebra says it has developed bar-code labels that could be affixed to food products at the grower and then be easily scanned and traced as they move through the supply chain to the retailer. While the technology cannot prevent a food-borne illness or outbreak, it can quickly identify where the affected product originated, who handled it, and where consumers purchased it, Zebra says. Companies in the supply chain can then quickly determine the source of the problem and take corrective action—first to take the product off the shelves and then to prevent future incidents, the company says.

The pressure on the food supply chain to maintain better records is likely to intensify. This summer, the U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R. 2749, the Food Safety and Enhancement Act of 2009, expanding the FDA's regulatory authority over the nation's food supply. The bill allows the FDA to conduct warrantless searches of business records and to establish a national food tracing system. No companion bill has been introduced in the Senate.

Some industry groups are not waiting for dictates from Washington. Three industry groups, most notably the Produce Marketing Institute, are developing traceability requirements on produce growing, manufacturing, and distribution in an effort to avoid government intervention into their business.

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