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It’s official: No one knows where food comes from

Submitted by on Sunday, 29 March 2009 2 Comments

Befuddled by exactly where that yogurt you’re about to eat came from?

You’re in good company. According to a report released Friday, even federal inspectors with access to an array of government and industry records were able to follow only five of 40 foods through the entire manufacturing process, from farm to table.

Part of the problem was that more than half the records simply didn’t exist , according to the Inspector General’s report. A quarter of the managers investigators questioned weren’t even aware of Food and Drug Administration reporting requirements.

That should clear up any lingering confusion about why the Peanut Corporation of America salmonella recall that started in January is continuing well into March.

The scariest part: The study looked at fairly simple manufactured foods such as bottled water, ice, milk, eggs, plain yogurt, unbleached flour, oatmeal, fresh tomatoes, bags of cut-up leaf vegetables and fruit juice.

If government inspectors couldn’t figure out where the oatmeal came from, heaven help them if they’d tried to play CSI on a can of soup.

The concept is called “traceback,” and it’s not a new one. It’s been around since a 2002 bioterrorism law required manufacturers to be able to trace every packaging size, specific brand, lot number, ingredient and handler involved in every step of the process. The law also required specific contact information for each company along the line.

Funny how the threat of terrorism was enough to convince the National Security Administration that it had the authority to seize millions of phone records but it still hasn’t persuaded the food industry to, oh, follow the law.

FDA spokeswoman Stephanie Kwisnek told the Wall Street Journal that the agency is developing guidance to improve the industry’s recordkeeping and help the agency trace food contaminants.

Seven years down the road and they’re still “developing guidance”? One would think “developing guidance” would be as simple as saying, “Here are the laws. Follow them.” But, then, this was the agency that spent weeks last summer tracking down killer tomatoes when it turned out that peppers were the culprit in that salmonella outbreak.

The compliance time bomb the new report revealed could create outbreaks of food-borne illness that make pinning down peanuts and peppers no more challenging than playing pin the tail on the donkey.

Almost half of these facilities in the Inspector General’s review said that they mixed raw products from 100 or more farms, making it difficult for the FDA to figure out where any contamination came from. That delay would in turn mean a lag in removing products from shelves, sickening and perhaps killing many more people while officials try to figure out things.

“According to an estimate from a manager at a grain storage facility, if grain from one farm were contaminated, millions of bags of flour would be at risk and might have to be removed from retail shelves.”

Millions of bags of flour. Who knows how many other millions of manufactured pastries, crackers, breads and cereals.

And if the tainted ingredient were corn or soy – just try finding a nonorganic manufactured food without one or both of those ingredients – the potential scope of the problem boggles the mind.

For millions of food allergic people, salmonella or e. coli isn’t even required to cause problems. A trace of soy here, a bit of peanut there can land someone in the hospital. Or worse.

You would think that somewhere along the line the food industry would realize that the reporting requirements are not just some picky regulations promulgated by liberals determined to choke big business.

They’re regulations that could protect businesses as well. Businesses such as Kellogg, which recalled $70 million worth of products in the wake of the peanut butter outbreak and suddenly is calling for tighter food safety regulations. Businesses that could face lawsuits after selling contaminated products.

“For a manufacturer, distributor or seller, tracking the source of the food products you handle is the easiest way, if not the only way, to avoid being on the hook for someone else’s food-safety shortfall,” food safety attorney David Babcock wrote at the blog site of the law firm MarlerClark.

Bill Marler, a partner in the firm, estimated in another post at that site that the full cost of the peanut outbreak will exceed $1 billion by the time everything from lost profits to lost lives is accounted for.

One billion dollars. Maybe that figure will convince manufacturers to follow the law, even if 650 illness and nine deaths due to Peanut Corporation of America won’t.

Copyright 2009 Debra Legg. All rights reserved.

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  • Vanilla Cokehead said:

    Reminds me of the scene from “Dragnet” when Streebeck asks Friday “what falls into the standard industrial sausage”. Sad state of affairs.

  • Debra said:

    Ha! One of these days I’ll have to post on the allowable levels of bugs in the food supply, Brian. Talk about “industrial sausage.”