updated 3/29/2004 9:34:16 AM ET 2004-03-29T14:34:16

Facing opposition from the food industry, the government is delaying putting in place new plans to help track contaminated food.

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The Food and Drug Administration had intended to set final rules by the end of March that would give companies as few as four hours to provide data on the ingredients and location of their products. Compliance would be phased in, with big companies beginning in six months and small ones in 18 months.

After receiving hundreds of comments, the FDA has decided to give the issue more thought and now hopes to have the final rules by the end of May, spokesman Michael Herndon.

Caroline Smith DeWaal, head of food safety for the Center Science in the Public Interest, said the delay showed the clout of an industry that opposes more federal requirements.

The rules are based on the Bioterrorism Act of 2002. But officials could use the law’s food security provisions to trace products with bacteria from poor plant sanitation and other contaminants.

Extra safety measures proposed
The FDA wants food-handling companies, including processors, shippers and sellers, to keep records of what they bought, from whom they bought it and where they sent the products. The goal is to create a chain of information from raw materials entering a plant to finished goods on the supermarket shelf.

Susan Stout, vice president for federal affairs of the Grocery Manufacturers of America, said the government is asking for more data than the industry can supply.

Making the FDA’s system work would mean an enormous upgrade in tracking, to the point at which a route salesperson would have to list every item delivered and every item removed during restocking, down to “the little teeny things with six crackers in it,” Stout said. There are no systems to do this, she said.

Existing computer programs can track some of the data sought, said Leslie Rupp, a corporate account manager in the food and beverage unit of Siemens Energy and Automation, a U.S. branch of the German-based electronics and industrial conglomerate.

Siemens’ systems let companies record such things as their raw materials and the results of their product testing, Rupp said. The software can record identities of suppliers and business purchasers, but it can cost $40,000 per terminal, which puts it out of range of smaller companies, he said.

Companies reluctant
Most companies rely on paper records as well as what they store in their own computers, Rupp said.

The FDA wants to be able to trace tainted ingredients back to their suppliers. To do this, it wants companies to provide it with records of their ingredients. Companies are reluctant to reveal that without assurances that the information will not find its ways to competitors, Stout said. To food companies, some ingredients can be trade secrets, she said. Flavorings and spices do not have to be disclosed on product labels.

Food companies also object to the FDA’s demand for a fast response. The agency wants companies to produce records in four hours if the demand is made during daytime business hours. If the alert comes earlier or later, the business would have eight hours.

“There has to be some flexibility here,” because companies might not be able to meet those deadlines, Stout said. Getting all the data on a big case might take a full day, her group said.

DeWaal said the industry is capable of doing what the FDA wants, but that many companies do not want to put much effort into data collection.

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