The Trouble With Tracing Fruits and Veggies

Salmonella outbreak revives food safety debate.

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.

"Recent outbreaks such as E. coli from spinach and salmonella from tomatoes have undermined consumer confidence in the safety of the food supply," the report stated.

Today on Capitol Hill, outraged House lawmakers also lambasted the FDA for not ensuring the safety of the food supply. Prior to the hearing, the committee voted to issue subpoenas for nine private food laboratories that failed to comply with the committee's request for documents relating to the testing of food products under import alerts.

"Food and Drug cannot even identify the source of contamination or to know where the tomatoes, which are poisoning Americans, have originated," said Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich. "These continued outbreaks are unacceptable. To have Food and Drug come up and say they don't know what to do about it, or how much money they need, or what resources they require is a shame and a disgrace."

Criticisms of the FDA date back to 1998 when the investigative arm of Congress first cited agency deficiencies. A decade later, the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations already has held eight hearings on the agency's food safety shortcomings, making today's session just the latest one in a long line.

Committee members called on the agency to require immediate implementation of country-of-origin labeling to better track the nation's food. To help keep produce safe, today's food processors along the supply chain are required to know only who they bought from and sold to. They might not have any knowledge of who is involved further up or down the chain.

"There's no good in having a system that takes you from the farm — halfway through the supply chain — and then another system that picks up from there all the way to the retail," said David Acheson, the FDA's associate commissioner for food protection. "It has to be, essentially, what we call an interoperable uniform system."

Dewaal, of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said, "Right now the technology exists, but it's not being used widely because companies aren't required to use them."

But many said Congress is at least partially to blame for the FDA's struggles. The FDA is responsible for making sure about 80 percent of the nation's food supply is safe, but the agency has said it doesn't have nearly enough money to do its job. On Monday, the administration upped its budget request for the FDA by $275 million for the upcoming fiscal year, with about $125 million of that money intended to go to food safety efforts.

"Congress is very angry at FDA for not doing better, but I think they share much of the blame because they've not been willing to give FDA the funding it needs to do its job well," Hubbard said.

At the FDA, commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach has said the FDA needs to do a better job of tracking its products and has announced a plan to place more FDA inspectors overseas. He admitted that the agency's use of paper records instead of electronic ones make it hard for the agency to do its job effectively.

"You need rapid tests," said Hubbard, the former FDA official. "You need more laboratory capacity and you need more inspectors to get out there and find the problem quickly, get to the source and stop it."

"But you also need prevention, you need rules in place that say how you can produce safe produce," he added.

The FDA said today that cases of salmonella from tainted tomatoes have now been reported in six new states: Florida, Georgia, Missouri, New York, Tennessee and Vermont. Twenty-five people have been hospitalized, but no deaths are attributed to the outbreak.

ABC News' Tom Shine, Clayton Sandell, Brian Hartman and Randy Gyllenhaal contributed to this report.

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