Identifying the suppliers and distributors of food products remains a serious issue according to a report released last week by the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Health and Human
Beginning in 2005, FDA required certain food facilities to maintain records identifying the sources, recipients, and transporters of food products. The purpose of these records is to allow FDA to trace an article of food through each stage of the food supply chain—from a retail shelf back to a farm—if FDA has a reasonable belief that a food product is adulterated and presents a serious health threat.
This new report was based on two primary data sources: (1) a traceability exercise of 40 selected food products and (2) structured interviews with the managers at the food facilities that handled the selected food products. Traceability is the ability to follow the movement of a food product
through the stages of production, processing, and distribution. Traceability includes both traceback and trace forward. Traceback is the ability to trace a food product from the retail shelf back to the farm. Conversely, trace forward is the ability to trace a food product from the farm forward to the retail shelf. Traceability is often needed to identify the sources of food contamination and the recipients of contaminated food in product recalls and seizures.
The issue of tracking the sources of food-borne disease outbreaks has gained attention since the massive recall of peanut-related products from Peanut Corp. of America earlier this year, which we have posted on.
For the traceability exercise, the agency purchased food products from different retail stores and attempted to trace them through each stage of the food supply chain back to the farm(s) or the border. The government asked the facilities that handled the food product for information about
their sources, recipients, and transporters, which was used in an effort to trace the product. The HHS inspector general’s office and FDA representatives purchased 10 individual food products from retail stores in four metropolitan areas – New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Washington. The products included bottled water, manufactured ice, whole milk, eggs, plain yogurt, milled unbleached flour, plain oatmeal, fresh whole tomatoes, cut vegetables and fruit juice.
The department’s inspector general’s office found that retailers and distributors could trace the component ingredients of just five of 40 products purchased to the farm or country where the ingredients were produced. The inspectors were only able to locate facilities that likely handled the products for 31 of the products.
Several factors limited the ability to trace the specific food products through each stage of the food supply chain. These factors included: (1) processors, packers, and manufacturers not always maintaining lot-specific information, as required; (2) other types of facilities not maintaining lot-specific information because it is not required; (3) retailers receiving products not labeled with lot-specific information; and (4) the mixing of products from a large number of farms. These factors also affect the speed with which FDA can trace specific food products through the food supply
chain. In fact, more than half the 220 facilities contacted failed to meet federal requirements to maintain records about their sources, recipients and transporters of food. The report found that a quarter of the companies contacted did not even know about the requirements.
In a food emergency, there could be serious health consequences if FDA cannot — at a
minimum — identify the facilities that potentially handled a contaminated food product.
The report recommends that:
- FDA should seek statutory authority, if necessary, to require all processors, packers, and manufacturers to create and maintain lot-specific information for food products. FDA should also extend the requirements regarding lot-specific information to other types of facilities, such as distributors, storage facilities, and retailers, in order to further strengthen the traceability of food products.
- FDA should consider seeking additional statutory authority requiring food facilities to further strengthen the traceability of food products.
- FDA should work with the food industry to develop additional guidance on traceability.
- FDA should work with the food industry to develop standards for mixing raw food products from a large number of farms.
- FDA should seek statutory authority to request facilities’ records at any time, as opposed to its current authority to request records only when FDA has a reasonable belief that an article of food presents a serious health threat.
- FDA should develop education activities that focus on appropriate and reliable record-keeping systems.