The summer of 2008 was a low point in Sherri A. McGarry’s career. McGarry, who heads the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s food outbreak response team, was searching for the origins of a salmonella scare that had started in Minnesota and would spread to 43 states. Working day and night in the FDA’s Maryland emergency operations center, she tried to zero in on the contaminated produce she believed was to blame.
Food manufacturers said they didn’t have the details she needed to follow the produce back through the supply chain to the source. Under the Bioterrorism Act of 2002, which governs how much food manufacturers must know about the provenance of their ingredients, companies are required to keep records only on what’s known as “one up/one back”—that is, whom they bought it from and whom they’ll sell it to. As a result, the industry has very little incentive to find out, or disclose, more than that. “It’s less likely you’ll be held liable if folks can’t prove that you’re the source of the contamination,” says Erik Olson, director of food programs at the Pew Health Group, which studies food safety.
That can make tracking outbreaks exasperating work. At last, McGarry thought she had found the culprit: red roma tomatoes. But that turned out to be wrong. “You just can’t make the linkages,” she says. “Firm A ships X and Y to Firm B, and by then they’ve repacked it into something else.” By the time the agency identified jalapeños from a Mexican farm as the cause—five months after the first person fell ill—the outbreak had sickened more than a thousand people.
Fast-forward to today. In response to outbreaks involving peanuts, spinach, and eggs, in 2010 Congress passed the most sweeping overhaul of the food system in decades. The Food Safety Modernization Act, which went into effect this year, gives regulators new powers to order food recalls, access company records, and close food plants. Each year the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says illnesses from contaminated food affect one in six Americans, leading to 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths. Yet Congress put off perhaps the most useful tool for quickly heading off outbreaks: A rule requiring food companies to keep records about where their ingredients come from was left out of the final bill.
The FDA has just under a year to present a plan to Congress detailing how such a “traceback” requirement would work. So far, the powerful food lobby has been successful at fighting the government’s efforts. The House version of the food bill required manufacturers to keep records that would enable the government to trace food all the way back to the grower within two business days. By the time it was ratified by the Senate, that requirement had been watered down to a pilot program.
That leaves regulators who monitor the safety of what we eat to tangle with a dizzyingly complex global food network. More than 75 percent of seafood and half of the fruit Americans consume is imported. The FDA has registered 254,088 foreign farms and processing facilities that feed into the U.S. food supply. Something as commonplace as a frozen pizza can have upwards of 50 ingredients from 10 or more countries. That includes spices sourced from around the world—most spices are imported—as well as an array of preservatives and additives. The sauce might contain tomatoes grown in Colombia, Guatemala, or Israel, citric acid from Mexico, and soybean oil made from beans that were grown in Minnesota, sent overseas for processing, and then shipped back to the U.S. The crust alone may contain 40 or more ingredients. “The consumer has absolutely no idea,” says William Kanitz, president of ScoringAg.com, which sells traceback software to food companies.
The industry says it is unnecessary and prohibitively expensive to keep track of the entire journey. The new regulations would “touch everyone from the CEO of the world’s largest food companies to the guy who throws a pack of spices on the back of a mule in Iran—and everyone in between,” says Scott Faber, vice-president of the Grocery Manufacturers Assn., an industry lobbying group. Several companies, like Kanitz’s, offer software that gives food manufacturers the ability to trace products to their source. Some can even track produce to specific fields within a farm. Those products can be a tough sell, since companies don’t need to use them.
Some large food manufacturers are getting ahead of what they see as potentially burdensome government regulations by voluntarily adopting their own tracking standards. Yum! Brands, which owns Pizza Hut, KFC, and Taco Bell, traces the foods it purchases from the time they cross the border into the U.S. BASF, a German company that makes vitamins and enzymes used in many processed foods, uses software that graphically tracks ingredients to the first time they are packaged.
Meanwhile, food auditors and insurers who underwrite foreign facilities see opportunity in the Food Safety Act. Under the new law’s Foreign Supplier Verification Program, overseas farms and food facilities will have to meet stricter standards to import products to the U.S. Tom Chestnut, vice-president of NSF International, one of the largest food auditors, says his Ann Arbor-based company is revving up operations and hiring more staff overseas in anticipation of the new rules.
The FDA doesn’t have the resources or staff to inspect foreign suppliers. NSF audits 25,000 food facilities and farms a year. The FDA inspects 500. “Just last week I made a sweep through Latin America. I was in Colombia, Peru, Argentina, and Brazil giving presentations [about the regulations],” Chestnut says. “These are people for whom a good portion of their livelihood depends on the ability to export to the U.S. And they’re saying, ‘O.K., what does all this mean?’ ”
A lot of people, both inside and outside the U.S., are asking that question. Food industry lobbyists may ultimately succeed in keeping the FDA from imposing the strictest traceback standards, leaving McGarry and her team to play the same frustrating guessing game the next time there’s a food outbreak. “The idea of tracing food from farm to table is a great concept, and certainly popular right now,” says Pew’s Olson. “The reality on the ground is extremely complicated.”