COLLEGE PARK, Md. — While praising the industry’s efforts on the Produce Traceability Initiative, Food and Drug Administration officials told the Washington Public Policy Conference that the agency continues to study the issue as it considers future guidance.

The FDA is trying to be more proactive in working with industry to determine distribution patterns of fresh produce items potentially linked to foodborne illnesses.

“We’ve had some real issues with traceback,” said Sherri McGarry, food safety official with the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.

One specific challenge is trying to “connect the dots” of all the handlers throughout the distribution chain, she said.

“Very often, growers will say when they know what we are receiving and what we send out, but we can’t link the shipments up,” she said.

The FDA began talking with the industry in 2008 about product tracing technology. In addition, the FDA has contracted for studies on traceability, including one soon to be released report that examines industry practices regarding traceability.

That report will look at the costs and benefits of traceability, and McGarry said that study from the Institute of Food Technologists is expected to be issued sometime in September.

“Essentially, we really need to improve product tracing,” she said.

McGarry also briefed attendees on the nature of produce outbreaks since 1996.

From 1996 to 2008, she said that the FDA investigations have counted 77 foodborne illness outbreaks related to fresh produce and another 27 outbreaks attributed to fresh sprouts. Among other FDA-regulated food, that compares with 207 outbreaks associated with eggs, 21 linked to dairy products, 37 tied to processed food and 114 connected with seafood.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture regulates meat and those statistics were not included in the FDA presentation.

Meanwhile, McGarry said the FDA has estimated that fresh produce has resulted in the most confirmed illnesses during the 1996 to 2008 period. With 9,000 attributed illnesses, fresh produce compares with eggs (6,609), dairy (349) and processed foods (3,684) among FDA regulated foods.

Overall, fresh produce accounted for about 16% of foodborne illness outbreaks among FDA regulated products, but 39% of illnesses.  Fresh produce accounted for 15 deaths from 1996 to 2008, she said.

She said sprouts accounted for 5.7% of the outbreaks and 6.3% of the illnesses.

Among fresh produce commodities, she said leafy greens accounted for 34% of the outbreaks, tomatoes 17% and melons 16%.