The produce traceability pilot project being conducted for the Food and Drug Administration by the Institute of Food Technologists will focus on tomatoes and will begin in mid-January.

Those details about the traceability pilot project were revealed by Tejas Bhatt, staff scientist with the Washington, D.C.-based group in a Jan. 4 web seminar sponsored by Irvine, Calif.-based Western Growers. He said the project, tracking tomatoes from field to retail stores, is expected to last about a month.

In the 50-minute web seminar, Bhatt, technical facilitator for FDA pilot projects, said the agency is not as interested in how to implement a recall as much as finding what he called “points of convergence” in a public health outbreak. Those factors can help FDA quickly identify contaminated food and protect public health, he said.

Under the Food Safety Modernization Act, Bhatt said the FDA was directed to conduct two traceability pilot projects — one on a produce item and another on a processed food item — based on foods associated with outbreaks from 2005 to 2010. Other stipulations about the pilot projects were the inclusion of both domestic and international products and various sizes of business.

Tomatoes were selected as the commodity for the produce pilot program, Bhatt said. The processed food item will be a frozen or ready-to-eat item that contains peanuts, meat and spices. The pilot projects will include evaluations of costs and benefits and feasibility across the supply chain, he said. The pilot projects cannot prescribe any one technology and they can require not more than one-up and one-down identification.

Bhatt said there has been an incredible response among industry in the call for volunteers for the study.

“I’m really thankful for the food industry to be so enthusiastic for participating,” he said. Bhatt did not say what companies are part of the pilot project, but said about 40 companies are willing to be involved.

As the pilots are conducted, he said the IFT wants input from the entire industry on the importance of the Produce Traceability Initiative.

“We don’t want to come out and undo all that work but at the same time we cannot endorse that because what we’re doing is something that is more for the (entire) industry and not just for produce.”

He said the Institute of Food Technologists conducted a study on tomato traceability in 2009, and the new pilot will show how much traceability has improved since 2009, to show the “state of the industry” in regard to traceability.

More than 50 volunteers are involved with five panels overseeing and advising the pilot projects, he said. An oversight panel includes members of the food industry, state and federal officials, consumer groups, academia and consultants. A state traceback investigation panel includes state public health officials and a produce panel is comprised of volunteers from all parts of the produce supply chain. A processed food panel also draws from all parts of the food chain. A cost panel includes economists, academians and consultants.

Bhatt said more than 200 different companies were interested in providing technology for the traceability pilot. Bhatt is responsible for narrowing that list down to a manageable number.

“I’m in the process of creating a technology panel to evaluate some the applications we received,” he said.

He said about three to five technology providers per pilot are expected to be chosen.

He noted that some elements of the Food Safety Modernization Act may or may not include regulations about traceability. By January of this year, the FDA is expected to produce a list of high-risk food that could be subject to a separate traceability standard.

“That is up to the FDA and it is not our job to identify (them),” he said.

He said that the IFT will deliver its report on the traceability projects to the FDA by June. The FDA will use that report to make recommendations to Congress to establish a more effective food product tracing system.

Regulations could include some kind of phase-in period and include provisions on data capture and data sharing.

By January of 2013, the FDA is mandated to publish record-keeping requirements in the Food Safety Modernization Act.