(July 11, 1:47 p.m.) Mandated traceability systems for all food and expanded recall authority for the Food and Drug Administration have been legislative goals for Congresswoman Diana DeGette, D-Colo., for several years, but 2008 may be the year she finds the tipping point for both issues.

While her legislative ideas — the Safe and Fair Enforcement & Recall Act (mandates recall authority ) and the Tracing and Recalling Agricultural Contamination Act (mandated traceability) — were first introduced in 2002, new Congressional leadership and broader public awareness have pushed her ideas to the top of the agenda for Congress.

Rep. DeGette, vice chairwoman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, on July 9 said she wants to mandate a system that would allow easier traceback investigations in the event of foodborne illness outbreaks.

She cited the current salmonella outbreak linked to tomatoes, jalapeno peppers and serrano peppers, the 2006 E. coli outbreak from tainted spinach and the 2007 salmonella foodborne illnesses traced to peanut butter.

DeGette believes the FDA needs more money for food inspections, authority or mandatory recalls and a mandatory traceability system for all food.

“A lot of consumers — most consumers — are shocked when they learn that the FDA does not have mandatory recall authority,” she said. DeGette said the FDA shouldn’t have to rely on industry cooperation. “(FDA) having that authority will make the industry stay on its toes.”

Both the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association and the Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association have expressed support for expanded FDA funding and acceptance of the agency’s recall authority. However, both groups have expressed reservations about any legislation that would mandate a particular technology solution for traceability without taking into account the industry efforts toward a solution.

DeGette said the House Energy and Commerce committee and its oversight and investigations subcommittee had a series of public hearings on food safety in recent months. The committee plans to meet later this month to review traceability issues concerning the FDA’s response to the salmonella outbreak, she said.

DeGette said the extended salmonella investigation linked to tomatoes and peppers is both a failure of industry traceback system and the FDA’s traceback investigation.

She speculated that if a “robust” traceability system was in place, it would have saved tomato growers in approved regions millions of dollars.

“I don’t think we can just leave it all up for a voluntary system. I think we need a national system,” she said.

However, she said doesn’t want to push an unworkable timetable or solution on the food industry that would undermine the goal.

She said Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, has created a discussion draft of an omnibus food safety bill.

“I would hope for some kind of mark up before the end of September,” she said.

Industry ‘buy in’

DeGette said she believes that industry groups and consumer groups should support legislation to enhance food safety.

“What I say to industry representatives all the time is that it is in the industry’s best interest and consumers to identify contaminated (food), to target it and remove foods from the market,” she said. “I think this benefits everyone.”

Leaders of industry associations said they are communicating with Capitol Hill lawmakers on possible food safety legislation, but so far have taken no positions on specific bills.

Kathy Means, vice president of government relations for the Produce Marketing Association, Newark, Del., said PMA will look at any bill if it supports the goals of the association and the industry.

However, she said Congress must make sure it doesn’t act with a “one size fits all” approach.

“We would not like to see Congress swayed by the vendor of the day into thinking there is one computer system or one system out there for traceability,” she said.

Rather, Congress should be looking at supporting industry-developed traceability and best practices, Means said.

Robert Guenther, senior vice president of public policy for United Fresh, said there are expectations of much more scrutiny and discussion of legislation relating to reforming food safety laws and FDA reforms in coming weeks.

“Whether that gets to mark up or floor consideration is still up in the air,” he said.

Industry has the expertise, the history and the background to develop traceability programs, and Guenther said the government should try to dovetail any legislative language on traceability to the industry efforts.

“We need to make sure it doesn’t impede the current work going on in the industry,” he said.