DENVER — Congress will pass food safety legislation soon.

Produce industry has work to do on traceability

Greg Johnson

So says David Acheson, former Food and Drug Administration associate commissioner for foods and now managing director of food and import safety practice at Leavitt Partners, a Washington, D.C.-area consulting firm.

“Congress may say they need a victory after health care defeat, and food safety is bipartisan,” Acheson said during his presentation at the Traceability Interoperability Summit, on Jan. 21-22 in Denver.

The summit was sponsored by the Colorado Springs-based Traceability Institute (Full disclosure: the institute invited me to moderate a panel on produce traceability and paid for my hotel stay).

FDA target

Acheson is in quite a different place than last time the produce industry heard much from him. About 18 months ago, he wore a target as one of the FDA’s primary spokesmen, explaining why the agency couldn’t pin down the culprit in the Salmonella Saintpaul outbreak which devastated the North American tomato industry and ultimately led to the exoneration of the commodity.

He still defends the FDA’s handling of the outbreak because it is confined to a relatively rigid set of rules. But, he acknowledges, “It’s horribly inefficient because it’s slow.”

While the FDA certainly did some things wrong in the summer of 2008, for instance, overstepping its authority by publically advising consumers to avoid eating certain tomatoes from certain regions, Acheson deserves credit for his accessibility at the time and bringing the process more into the open, even if the industry didn’t like what it was hearing.

This opening of the process, though, allowed the industry to have many subsequent meetings with the FDA and other government agencies to share what each of them want when the next outbreak hits.

Acheson said regulators want a few things that food companies will have to provide:

  • information fast,
  • consistency,
  • full-chain information,
  • information to be electronic,
  • interoperable systems, and
  • industry to develop and pay for traceability.

That’s a tall order.

On top of that, Acheson said the FDA doesn’t know what it wants when it comes to traceability. He said he’s a fan of the Produce Traceability Initiative, but he’s a bigger fan of pilot studies, finding what works in real time.

Acheson said the FDA will not mandate what technology should be used for traceability, which is good for existing systems at produce companies and technology providers.

Not working

Another conference speaker shed some negative light on the food industry’s traceability.

As most know or should know, the bioterrorism act of 2002 mandated one-up, one-back traceability, so that food companies are breaking the law by not complying.

William Pape, founder and executive vice president for business development for TraceGains and AgInfoLink, Longmont, Colo., said his company has worked with more than 100 food companies doing mock recalls and examining their traceability systems.

“What percent truly was compliant with the bioterrorism act?” he asked. “Zero.”

Pape said the PTI is a good system that other food segments can learn from, but the produce industry isn’t following the milestones like they should.

He said the next milestone, when companies need to have human- and machine-readable Global Trade Item Number labels on every case of produce shipped to customers, which is scheduled for completion by September, will really show the industry where it stands.

“After Sept. 30, companies that don’t have GS1 and readable barcodes will become very visible,” he said, exposing produce companies that are non-compliant and hopefully pressuring them to comply with PTI.

Pape advised produce companies to work with technology companies as soon as possible and find out through a mock recall how they perform before they have to learn through an actual recall.

“A self assessment is self delusion,” he cautioned to produce companies who think they can do it on their own.

For the produce industry, traceability is a long process, and it’s far from completed, but companies who haven’t started the process take a huge risk.

A risk that doesn’t seem worth it.


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