The Trouble With Tracing Fruits and Veggies

Salmonella outbreak revives food safety debate.

ByABC News
June 12, 2008, 2:57 PM

June 12, 2008— -- Before fruits and vegetables end up in your refrigerator, they take a long and winding road from the farm to the store. But when problems arise in that complex supply chain, it's exceedingly difficult to trace what happened.

Today, it has been nearly two weeks since the Food and Drug Administration linked a salmonella outbreak to contaminated tomatoes, and still the agency has not been able to conclusively determine where the tomatoes came from or what caused them to go bad.

The FDA said today that 228 people in 23 states have been sickened from tainted tomatoes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Many experts and legislators charged today that the reason is because the United States does not have a system in place to effectively and consistently track the movements of the nation's fruits and vegetables.

"Produce is produced in a very complicated system where you have a lot of movement, a lot of trans-shipment and commingling," said William Hubbard, a former FDA official now in charge of Alliance for a Stronger FDA.

"It makes it very, very difficult to trace a given tomato back to its source," he said.

"If they have a box that's maybe half full of tomatoes, they might add tomatoes from another box that came from a completely different farm, maybe a different state, even a different part of the country," said Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

What's more, while packaged bags of produce such as lettuce have bar codes on them to help trace their movement, tomatoes and other produce do not have similar tags.

The complexities of ensuring the safety of the food supply are revealed today in a report released this morning by the Government Accountability Office. The report said the FDA's plan to protect the nation's food supply isn't fleshed out enough to work effectively.