Report highlights problems with lack of food traceability

September 3, 2008

Without a nationwide traceability system for fruits and vegetables, identifying food contamination sources has been slow, inaccurate and difficult.

Recent outbreaks have threatened public health and damaged the image and sales in the fresh produce industry, according to Rabobank’s “U.S. Food Safety in Fresh Produce” report.

“Several factors play a role in the severity and awareness of food contamination outbreaks in the fresh produce sector: media, increasing consumption, imports of fresh produce and changing population demographics,” said Rabobank Analyst Marieke de Rijke who examines U.S. food safety in the report and podcast.

Much of the recent attention on food safety was brought on by an outbreak between April and July where more than 1,300 people in 43 states were infected with salmonella.

For two weeks in June, retailers and restaurants did not serve the tomato varieties believed to be the cause of the outbreak.
However, in mid-July, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that they had wrongly linked the outbreak to tomatoes.

Instead, Jalapeño and Serrano peppers grown in Mexico, caused the salmonella outbreak.

While loss to the tomato industry has been significant, it is expected to rebound relatively quickly. In the 2006 spinach outbreak, it was more difficult for spinach to recover because consumers chose other leafy vegetables. It is hard to replace the tomato.

“Another difference between this year’s outbreak and the 2006 spinach outbreak was that barcodes on the spinach bags allowed the FDA to locate the outbreak in four days,” said Analyst de Rijke.

As of Sept. 30, mandatory Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) for fruits and vegetables will come into effect, which means fruits and vegetables will have to be labeled at the retail level.

“A positive side-effect of this U.S. government regulation would be an improved ability to trace food back to the source of contamination,” said de Rijke.

Improvements in traceability, such as a nationwide traceability system, would help the FDA locate and contain outbreaks more quickly and more accurately.

In addition, it would minimize health risks and help maintain consumer confidence in the safety of fresh produce.


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