Product Tracing Systems for Fresh Produce
November 13, 2008
Director, Food Policy Initiatives, Consumers Union
Thank you for the opportunity to testify today on product tracing systems for fresh produce. My name is Jean Halloran and I am Director of Food Policy Initiatives for Consumers Union, non-profit publisher of Consumer Reports.
Let me begin by saying that recent events have taken a serious toll on consumer confidence in the food supply. Concerns about contaminants and the safety of imported food are very high. Consumers Union has just conducted a new poll, released today, of a nationally representative sample of Americans. Only 12 percent of those polled currently regard the overall food supply as very safe, although another 61 percent feel it is somewhat safe. Nearly half (48%) said their confidence in the safety of the nation’s food supply has decreased. A bare majority (54%) of Americans feel the government is doing all it can to ensure food safety—and almost half feel the government is not doing all it can. Eighty-three percent of respondents are concerned with harmful bacteria or chemicals in food and 81 percent are concerned with the safety of imported food.
What do consumers think should be done about this? In our poll, there was overwhelming support for traceability. Ninety-seven percent agree with the statement “When food safety problems arise, the government should be able to quickly and accurately trace food from production to sale.” Indeed almost all—85 percent—strongly agreed with this statement.
Clearly the questions before this hearing—how we can enhance product tracing for fresh produce and improve FDA’s ability to use such information to identify sources of contamination—are questions that are of the highest importance to consumers.
It is not surprising that consumers have the concerns that they do. The major outbreak last spring and summer of foodborne illness involving salmonella saintpaul in produce from Mexico, highlighted flaws and weaknesses in the government’s ability to keep the food supply safe. The outbreak lasted four months, while FDA and CDC struggled to identify what the source was. Some 1400 recorded illnesses, 280 hospitalizations and 2 deaths were attributed to the outbreak. The real toll was almost certainly much higher– experts estimate that for every reported case in an outbreak of this type, three to ten times as many people may be affected, but are not counted because they don’t see a doctor, or their doctor doesn’t seek to identify the bacterium causing their problem. Ultimately a DNA match to the bugs that were making people sick was found on peppers grown in Mexico and shipped to the United States. Tomatoes from the same region may also have been contaminated—we still do not know.
Consumers Union believes that had a better traceability system been in place for produce last spring, the chances are good that FDA could have found the source of this outbreak more quickly and not only protected the health of consumers better, but also reduced the devastating financial damage that this problem caused to the tomato industry. The product tracing system FDA had to use—one step forward, one step back, without standard record formats, and often not electronic– proved a nightmare for tracing a product, tomatoes, that went through many hands on the way to the consumer. We commend FDA for holding this hearing to look at whether traceability can be improved. I will now address some of the specific issues that FDA laid out in its questions.
First, we support requiring a fresh produce identifier or code on fresh produce. FDA can and should build on systems that are in place for other purposes. The institution of country of origin labeling for produce, as well as the widespread use of stickers with PLU numbers on them, means that it would not be difficult to institute traceability for individual vegetables such as tomatoes and peppers. A code could be included—either a number or bar code—on the stickers that are already ubiquitous on certain fruits and vegetables. For leafy greens, such as heads of lettuce, the logistics are more difficult but can be tackled—numbers could go on tie bands or on a bag, if the product is sold that way.
If a sticker can be attached to an individual food item such as a tomato, then commingling would become less of an obstacle to traceback. There is at least a possibility that a food with a sticker will be found in the home of a sick consumer, or in a restaurant refrigerator after an outbreak. Paper or even electronic records that go one step forward and one back do not reach consumers, who are the ones who ultimately get sick if there is a contaminant. Any system that is adopted must extend all the way to the consumer.
The tracing should begin at the farm, or at the very next processing step, provided the processor keeps detailed records of incoming shipments and includes that information in its coding. The case of the contaminated spinach two years ago showed how a code on a bag of leafy greens could pinpoint a plant and a shift when the contaminated product was bagged, and plant records were then able to pinpoint the handful of farms that supplied that shift. With that information, it was possible with a fair degree of certainty to identify the source of the deadly bacteria in the spinach, and assure that it was no longer entering the food supply.
We would strongly urge, in requiring such identifiers, to begin with the types of produce that have caused the most frequent and serious health problems. It is quite obvious that certain types of produce cause many more problems than others: leafy greens, tomatoes, and peppers have all caused serious outbreaks. Cantaloupe has also been implicated. FDA should start with the most problematic produce. Fruits and vegetables that have never had a contamination problem or illness outbreak linked to them could phase in enhanced traceability requirements more slowly. Foods that consumers eat raw also obviously need much more attention and traceability than ones that are routinely cooked, since cooking kills bacteria.
For high priority produce—ones that have caused outbreaks or that are eaten raw—consideration should be given to requiring machine readable labels that can trace a product’s progress, in a manner similar to how Fed Ex tracks a package. Consideration should also be given to requiring electronic records, in an interoperable format. This requirement could begin with the initial processor, if growers do not have access to such technology.
Any systems that are instituted must apply equally to imported as well as domestically grown food. FDA will need new resources for both domestic and foreign inspections to enforce such requirements. Resources for food safety are currently highly imbalanced—for example, USDA inspects meat processing plants every day, but FDA currently inspects domestic food production facilities only once every five to ten years, and foreign facilities even less frequently. FDA will need a substantial increase in resources to do its job properly.
FDA asks whether identifiers might be stored along with other purchase information for consumers who have “frequent customer” or bonus cards. Something similar has been used to inform consumers of defective toys and non-food products recalls. While Consumers Union has serious concerns about consumers privacy and the ability of businesses to retain vast amounts of data about consumers, our concerns are less in this specific circumstance, since adding traceability data for foods to these databases would raise no new privacy issues, and would have some clear benefits.
Clearly all records should be standardized., and given the world we live in, it is hard to believe that they couldn’t be kept in an electronic form that could be accessed remotely and manipulated. FDA should make every effort to build on existing voluntary industry programs such as the Product Traceability Initiative. However cooperation with existing voluntary efforts should not be allowed to lead to a plethora of systems emerging that leave FDA as hampered as ever by lack of standardization and lack of interoperability of electronic records. Just as the United States benefits from having standard sized for light bulbs, FDA needs standardization of traceability.
Thank you for the opportunity to share the consumer perspective. We urge FDA to move quickly to improve product traceability, and in particular to focus on the most problematic produce—the produce that has caused the most illnesses—first.