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Food tracing system may have gaps

March 27, 2009 12:00:00 AM PDT
A federal report released Thursday found that the government's system for tracing foods is full of potentially dangerous gaps.The ability to trace food is considered critical when trying to figure out the source of outbreaks of food-borne illnesses and would also be crucial in a bioterrorism attack.

Investigators for the Health and Human Services inspector general's office found that they could only track five out of 40 foods all the way through the supply chain. In the test, government investigators bought 40 food items, including eggs, tomatoes, bottled water, oatmeal, fruit juice and yogurt.

Federal investigators were able to identify the facilities that most likely handled 31 of the 40 products, but they were unable to identify the facilities that handled four of the items, which amounts to 10 percent of the total.

Federal law requires food companies to keep records that would allow investigators to follow questionable foods in the supply chain. But the inspector general's investigation found that many company records lack detail and 25 percent of company managers were completely unaware they had to maintain such records.

The report said 70 out 118 food facilities in the tracking test did not meet the Food and Drug Administration's record keeping requirements for information about suppliers, shippers and customers.

"In some cases, managers had to look through large numbers of records - some of them paper based - for contact information," the report said. "For one product - a bag of flour - the storage facility did not know the exact farms that contributed to the product and, therefore, had to give us information about every farm that provided wheat during the previous harvest season."

The inspector general recommended that the FDA consider seeking stronger legal powers to improve tracking food. The FDA is reviewing the recommendations.

Last summer, FDA investigators struggled for weeks to identify the cause of a salmonella outbreak initially blamed on tomatoes. Eventually, hot peppers from Mexico were discovered to be the source of the outbreak.

The Bush Administration dropped a plan to require the food industry to maintain electronic records. At the time, food companies said keeping detailed records cost too much.

But with a new administration in power, the issue is likely to be reconsidered. President Barack Obama has already launched a review of the government's food safety system and several bills have been introduced in Congress.


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