A mandatory traceability system in the United States would help improve the safety of food, such as produce, a health official told lawmakers on Wednesday, three weeks after the government declared an end to the worst foodborne outbreak in a decade.
Some produce firms, including many in the tomato industry, use voluntary traceability programs but their approaches vary. Lawmakers said a mandatory program was overdue, and would help U.S. regulators improve safety and restore consumer confidence in food following a series of foodborne outbreaks since 2006.
"It is the system that is broken," said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, chair of the House Appropriations subcommittee on agriculture. "You still do not have mandatory traceability, mandatory performance standards. You are looking for a needle in a haystack."
Regulators struggled to pinpoint the source of an outbreak of Salmonella StPaul earlier this year that sickened more than 1,400 people and put 286 in the hospital. They initially focused on tomatoes before shifting their attention to peppers.
The slow pace of the investigation, which later traced the Salmonella strain to jalapeno and serrano peppers from Mexico, has renewed calls for greater monitoring of fresh fruits and vegetables and a national system to track produce.
Current tracking excludes restaurants, farms
The Bioterrorism Act of 2002 requires produce processors and distributors to keep track of where food goes and where it came from. This does not include restaurants and farms.
"We are going down a road of examining what is going to work," said David Acheson, the Food and Drug Administration's associate commissioner for food protection. He told the subcommittee a mandatory program "would have an impact."
Acheson said FDA does not believe it has explicit authority to mandate a tracking system.
The Salmonella outbreak was the latest health scare since 2006. The incidents, involving lettuce, peanut butter, pot pies and spinach, have resulted in dozens of hearings and proposals seeking tougher U.S. safety standards.
The latest proposal, which DeLauro plans to introduce next week, would create a separate safety agency within the Department of Health and Human Services to handle all food safety issues currently administered by FDA.
In a briefing on food issues, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which includes leading companies such as General Mills Inc and ConAgra Foods Inc, expressed doubt that food safety legislation would be passed this year.
Election could delay legislation
Prospects dim further next year with a new administration pursuing its own agenda and Congress dealing with other issues including health care and transportation.
"This may be our only window for some period of time to actually enact these important reforms," said Scott Faber, a vice president at the Grocery Manufacturers.
An estimated 76 million people in the United States get sick every year with foodborne illness and 5,000 die, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.