Tracking Produce Proves Complex

By Annys Shin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 17, 2008

The salmonella outbreak of 2008 may go down in history as the case of the missing tomatoes.

More than six weeks ago, the Food and Drug Administration issued a warning about a salmonella outbreak in New Mexico and Texas connected to raw tomatoes. Since then, the agency has expanded the warning nationwide and added jalapeƱo and serrano peppers. More than 1,100 people have fallen ill since April, but not a single contaminated tomato or pepper has been found.

Investigators said the complexity of the produce distribution system has been their biggest impediment, and some produce industry leaders agree that tracing fruits and vegetables could be easier. Though the technology to do so already exists in the form of bar codes that appear on nearly everything we buy, it could take as long as five years before the entire food industry applies it to food safety.

Produce outbreaks are notoriously hard to trace. In at least half of all produce outbreaks, health officials have never determined what made people sick. The short shelf life of most fresh fruits and vegetables means it's less likely the items will still be in people's refrigerators when investigators come looking. Plus, there are many paths produce can take to reach consumers.

In the salmonella probe, health officials said the practice of repacking made it harder to trace tomatoes to their source. Repacking involves sorting produce for size and color to meet a customer's specifications. Fresh tomatoes are often repacked, sometimes more than once. For investigators, the practice can open a multitude of new leads. Investigators trying to find the source of contaminated jalapeƱos have run into "the same spider web," said David Acheson, a top food safety official at the FDA.

For some produce industry leaders, references to spider webs sound like excuses for mistakes in judgment. "We are not dealing with failure of traceability. We are dealing with the fact that the trace-back did not support the single point of contamination hypothesis," said Tom Stenzel, president of United Fresh Produce Association. "We would submit that trace-back worked; we just weren't listening carefully enough to what it was telling us."

Other industry leaders agree with regulators that the faster investigators can trace products, the quicker they would be able to prove or disprove theories, thereby limiting an outbreak's scope and financial losses for businesses.

"When we've got illness, we've got to get back [to the source] as quickly as we can. We've got to do that fast for maximum public health efficiency so we're not dealing with weeks of delay and . . . relying on paper and pencil to try to figure this out," Acheson said.

The technology to track a chili pepper or tomato from packing shed to plate has been around for some time, as anyone who has sent or received a package knows. Both sender and recipient can go online, see the major stops in the package's journey and, after it arrives, the precise time it reached its destination. The nation's largest food distributors and manufacturers use similar technology to keep tabs on their inventories. But not all businesses can afford such sophisticated systems.

"You have space-age technology operating next to horse and buggies," said Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington advocacy group. Two weeks ago, the center and the Consumer Federation of America called on the FDA to issue emergency regulations to set up a traceability system.

Among companies that can track their products extensively, such as Wal-Mart or Costco, few use the same system, making the task of tracing a piece of produce slow and labor-intensive.

"There is no consistent use of standards and or technology solutions across the industry," said Gary Fleming, vice president of industry, technology and standards for the Produce Marketing Association, an industry trade group based in Newark, Del. "What a grower needs to know is different from what a distributor or a wholesaler needs to or a restaurant or retailer does."

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