WASHINGTON, D.C. — Through its Food Safety Working Group, the Obama administration is placing a priority on implementing traceability regulations at the Food and Drug Administration, an FDA official said during a seminar at the Food Safety Summit.

Sherri McGarry, of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, told a crowded room of conferences attendees April 13 that everything from poor handwriting to lack of unique identifiers for fresh produce items slows down trace-back investigations during an outbreak.

“No matter what the legislation is, we need to move forward with something to improve traceability,” she said.

McGarry said when a source of an outbreak cannot be identified, the agency is unable to move toward preventive food safety policies.

Joe Corby, executive director of the Association of Food & Drug Officers and a long-time health department official for the state of New York, said lack of uniform protocols and poor sharing of data were two top impediments to a timely investigation.

“Too much of what we do is react,” he said. “We know that when we trace these products back, it takes too long and why does it take so long? Because we don’t share our records.”

McGarry said some information sharing required changes in existing laws, and additional training is needed to ensure proper record collection.

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Administration places priority on traceability
Administration places priority on traceability


David Gombas, senior vice president of food safety and technology at the United Fresh Produce Association, explained the progress of the Produce Traceability Initiative and how it would likely put suppliers in line with future FDA regulations.

Gombas said the case-level labeling system that uses unique company and item numbers along with a barcode is capable of providing more information, and more accurately than many current systems. The result is a fast turnover of reliable information to regulatory agencies should an outbreak occur.

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“In 2008, the tomato industry was devastated because at the end of the day the FDA didn’t believe the traceability records,” Gombas said. “We have to have defensible, accurate, credible records otherwise we will remain vulnerable to the same kind of issue again.”

McGarry said that PTI was a “great industry initiative” and had “a lot of really good elements in it” though she said she was not endorsing PTI, nor could she predict how final legislation would direct FDA to act with respect to traceability.

Nonetheless, she affirmed that she hasn’t seen anything inconsistent between the bills in Congress and what PTI is promoting.

One issue confronting many growers interested in adopting PTI is the cost of implementation.

Asked how PTI could be affordable for smaller businesses, Gombas said the industry relies on solution providers to make adopting the system scalable, but he could not comment on the cost of obtaining a GS1 number.

“All the record keeping behind that, the verification, all of the labor that’s going to be involved in it. Yeah, that’s all going to cost,” he said. “But, it’s becoming a situation where it’s going to be the cost of doing business.”

McGarry said she has heard the same about the cost of PTI, but data supporting such claims is scant.

“I have also heard about several other possible traceability systems are all too expensive and I think we are really lacking data as to whether it is too expensive,” she said.

During a question-and-answer period, Gombas was also asked to comment on industry reluctance to move forward and meet timetables for PTI implementation.

“There is some reluctance, there is some confusion, and there’s a lot of wait-and-see,” he said. “Then again, there are others in the industry, about 50% or so, that have said, ‘full-speed ahead.’ We have confidence that what we have set out to do with PTI will be consistent with what Congress and FDA want to do in this respect.”