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Traceability rule represents big adjustment for food industry
He said traceability helps not only with safety but also allows companies to hold their partners along the chain accountable for moving food quickly and avoiding spoilage.
"It's about allowing people to make more intelligent decisions by providing accurate, instrumented data," he said.
Segments of the food industry have been required since 2005 to be able to trace "one step forward, one step back," but not farms or restaurants.
But according to a 2009 investigation by the Department of Health and Human Services's inspector general, most food facilities surveyed did not meet those requirements and 25 percent didn't even know about the law.
The need for better traceability became clear after a national outbreak of salmonella illness in spring 2008 that sickened more than 1,300 people across the country.
Initially, investigators at the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identified tomatoes as the culprit, and warned the public against consuming them. But more than a month later, FDA investigators correctly identified the source of the outbreak as peppers from Mexico. The delay was partly because of the chaotic record-keeping of the growers, distributors, wholesalers and retailers, Acheson said.
In the meantime, the cost to tomato growers in Florida alone was estimated at about $100 million.
While the traceability system will improve the tools available to the FDA, Acheson cautioned that tracking an outbreak will still take time.
"It still involves the FDA going to the local Safeway, finding out who they received it from and they've got to go to those three suppliers and do the same thing," he said. "They'll be more efficient, but it won't achieve the desired speed to shut it down."
In some cases, companies are going beyond the federal requirement and making a portion of the traceability information available to consumers, who are increasingly interested in the way food is produced.
HarvestMark, based in California, has developed a two-dimensional bar code sticker that can be placed on individual fruits and vegetables or packaging.
Shoppers can scan the sticker with a smartphone or go to the HarvestMark website and enter the number from the sticker to learn the path the food has taken and other information the farmer chooses to share, such as the harvest date.