(Nov. 20, 5:55 p.m.) OAKLAND, Calif. — More than two years after the 2006 E. coli outbreak linked to California grown spinach, the Food and Drug Administration is moving to establish mechanisms to improve traceability systems for fresh produce.

At a public meeting Nov. 13, most of those testifying expressed some frustration that the process is taking too long.

“The current situation is not acceptable,” said Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives for Consumers Union, Washington, D.C.

A recent Consumers Union poll found that just 12% of consumers believe the overall domestic food supply is safe, Halloran said. She pointed to the inability of the FDA to determine whether tomatoes were involved in the Salmonella Saintpaul outbreak earlier this year as a reason why consumers have concerns.

“Consumers and the produce industry share an interest in a speedy resolution,” Halloran said.

“We need to communicate better; we need to communicate now,” said Walter Ram, food safety director at The Giumarra Cos., Los Angeles, who testified on behalf of the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas, Nogales, Ariz.

Among the problems that must be overcome, Ram said, is working with foreign countries that export produce to the U.S.

“Geographic boundaries are transparent to the industry, but not to the FDA,” Ram said. “Follow the money is a good rule for traceability.”

Generalization can be dangerous, said Ed Beckman, president of California Tomato Farmers, Fresno, Calif.

With the support of the tomato growers, California has initiated regulations for traceability from the field. The regulations are inflexible, he said. A grower-shipper must receive a 100% grade from a third-party audit, Beckman said.

“I do not suggest that what works for tomatoes works for all commodities,” he said. “However, if regulations like those in California were made mandatory on imported tomatoes and enforced, it would level the playing field for domestic tomato growers.”

The Produce Marketing Association, Newark, Del., has placed traceability among its highest priorities, said Leslie Krasny, the association’s general counsel. The association formed the Produce Traceability Initiative, along with the Ottawa-based Canadian Produce Marketing Association and Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association. The group has set deadlines for voluntary compliance throughout the industry by the end of 2012.

All of the participants appearing on behalf of grower-shippers urged the FDA to require traceability standards to extend to retail and foodservice.

“Critical traceability continues beyond the grower-shipper,” Beckman said.

The FDA does not need to develop guidelines simultaneously for all commodities, Halloran said.

“The FDA should start with the commodities that have caused problems in the past, and that’s a relatively small group,” she said.