A new produce tracking system will dramatically cut the time it takes to trace tainted fruits and vegetables, potentially avoiding a repeat of the deadly 2006 E. coli outbreak linked to bagged spinach.
The electronic system — being promoted by industry organizations as the Produce Traceability Initiative — was developed after a 2006 E. coli contamination killed five people, sickened 238 and cost spinach producers millions of dollars.
The tracking system is the latest effort on the part of the produce industry to self-regulate. Companies in California and Arizona developed leafy green marketing agreements in 2007, also in response to the E. coli outbreak. The agreements set safety standards for companies that grow and handle products such as lettuce and spinach. The industry is currently considering a national agreement.
While food safety advocates applaud the oversight, they oppose produce companies and organizations taking the lead.
“We don’t think it’s the industry’s job to set those rules,” said Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food & Water Watch, a Washington-based advocacy group focused on food safety. “We think it’s the government’s job.”
The 2006 E. coli outbreak highlighted the inadequacies of the paper tracking process used by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. It took nearly a month after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officially pinpointed spinach as the culprit to find out exactly where the spinach was grown and where it had been shipped.
“The goal is 24 to 48 hours (to track tainted produce) … rather than 24 to 48 days, which it takes now,” said Ed Treacy of the Produce Marketing Association, a Delaware-based trade organization that helped develop the new program.
The system uses universal bar codes to identify each case of produce. Packing, shipping and distribution companies will keep an electronic record of the products to ensure they are quickly and accurately traced.
While the tracking method is voluntary, produce companies won’t have much choice about implementing it.
Five of the country’s biggest chains that control more than half of the grocery store market — Wal-Mart, Kroger, Supervalu, Safeway and Publix — will require their suppliers to use the system by the end of 2012.
There is no price tag on the tracking program. Dan Vache of the United Fresh Produce Association, a Washington-based trade organization that also helped develop the process, said the new system won’t noticeably increase what consumers pay at the grocery store.
While shoppers may not see added costs, produce companies will. Lovera and other advocates say they worry that small firms could go out of business because the costs may be too high.
“If you let [large companies] set the standards, they’ll set it so the smaller guys can’t participate at all,” said Carol Tucker Foreman, a prominent food safety advocate and distinguished fellow at the Consumer Federation of America in Washington.
Industry leaders say there are options even for small farmers.
“There are a lot of solutions out there,” Treacy said. “You need a laptop and a printer, but you don’t need to know how to program a space shuttle to figure out how to make it work.”
Those backing the system say it meets the 2011 Food Safety Modernization Act’s requirement for better produce tracking.
Marketing representatives say since the FDA itself doesn’t have the funding to develop the tracking improvements required by the new law, it has indicated support of the industry’s approach.
“They look at what [the industry] is doing and they say we’re doing the right thing because we’re doing the heavy lifting for them,” Vache said.
While the agency is writing requirements for tracking produce, FDA spokesperson Stephanie Yao said in an email: “FDA is encouraged by the proactive steps taken by the produce industry to improve product tracing.”
But consumer advocates still worry about the lack of transparency.
“It’s not a system where there’s a lot of accountability built in, and it’s very easy for [the industry] to not tell the public what they’re doing,” Lovera said.