Using the same system that allows a supermarket cashier to identify a piece of produce at the checkout counter could also allow investigators to trace the origin of unsafe food, two consumer groups say.
The pointed to the latest salmonella crisis, in which investigators' attention has recently shifted from tomatoes to jalapeño peppers after hundreds of consumers were sickened and millions of tomatoes were destroyed.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest and the Consumer Federation of America, in a letter to the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), argue that if fruits and vegetables can be tracked back up through the supply chain back to the farm, investigators would have an easier time nailing down the source of outbreaks of Salmonella, E. coli, and other dangerous pathogens.
"Effective traceability labeling must encompass the multiple steps along the path from farm to table, including farm-of-origin, packer, distributor, and retailer," the groups wrote in a letter to Dr. Andrew von Eschenbach.
"Such a system should use a standardized code for all FDA-regulated items to streamline investigations and ensure effective record-keeping by all entities along the production chain," the groups said.
The groups say the system could be very simple: placing little stickers on fruits and vegetables at the point of origin. The industry already has standard price look-up codes, or PLUs, that retailers can use at the register. Tomatoes that bear a sticker with the number 4087 are red Roma tomatoes, for instance.
Similar standardized codes could let retailers, food safety investigators, or even curious consumers know exactly what farm a given bunch of asparagus or bag of spinach hails from, the say.
"Each outbreak causes huge losses, both for the consumers who become severely ill and for the growers, who often can't sell their products," said CSPI food safety director Caroline Smith DeWaal. ""Unfortunately, as this investigation has dragged on, the produce industry is reaping what it sowed when it sought and received special exemptions that allowed the industry to avoid the country of origin labeling requirements Congress passed in 2002."
"While new requirements are scheduled to go into effect later this year, FDA needs to go beyond country of origin labeling and give public health officials the ability to trace produce from the fork back to the farm," DeWaal said.
Although the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control are casting a wider net to locate the food source responsible for the current Salmonella outbreak, CSPI says the public should still follow the FDA's current advice which tomatoes to eat and which to avoid.
"If FDA had put a traceability system in place two years ago following the spinach outbreak, this current investigation might be moving more quickly," said Chris Waldrop, Director of the Food Policy Institute at Consumer Federation of America.
"This latest outbreak demonstrates very clearly the need for the federal government to quickly and easily trace an implicated food to its source," he said.
The letter from CFA and CSPI also urges the agency to require growers and packers to implement written food safety plans, similar to the hazard control plans that have proved successful in reducing bacterial contamination of fresh meat and poultry. CSPI has been encouraging the FDA to require such plans since 2006.
When distributors mix and match produce from different sources, a practice called "repacking" in the industry, they should be required to maintain the identifying marks or labels that would allow FDA to determine the origin, according to the food safety groups.
Since 1990, CSPI has tracked over 700 outbreaks of foodborne illness linked to produce items, including two dozen outbreaks linked to tomatoes that have caused more than 3,000 illnesses. While 869 have been sickened in the current outbreak, foodborne illness is dramatically underreported, so the actual number of illnesses is likely many times higher.
Over the weekend, federal health officials said that maybe tomatoes weren't to blame for the odd strain of salmonella that has sickened hundreds of consumers after all.
Stores pulled tomatoes off the shelves, restaurants filled dumpsters with them and shoppers shunned them, all as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said they were trying to find the tomatoes that were causing the problem.
But now, the CDC thinks that perhaps it's been something else causing trouble all along, the Wall Street Journal reports. Jalapeño peppers, maybe. Or maybe cilantro and Serrano peppers.
The current theory making the rounds is that salsa prepared in restaurants may be the common thread that ties all the incidents together. After all, salsas is made with tomatoes. And jalapeño peppers. Cilantro too, come to think of it.
The reason the CDC thinks this is that it has been interviewing people who got sick, asking them what they ate and when, and then looking for a common element that might explain the outbreak of the Saintpaul strain of salmonella, a relatively rare and rather virulent version of the disease.
Consumer advocates have been irate for years with the apparently declining state of food safety in the U.S. Now restaurants and tomato growers are angry as well. They've lost millions of dollars and thrown away mountains of what may have been perfectly good produce.
The FDA has been hedging its best for the past few weeks, saying it couldn't be certain tomatoes were the problem. The biggest clue? Although tomatoes had been taken off the table, people were still getting sick.
So now, the prevailing theory is that maybe it's something that is commonly eaten with tomatoes. Salsa, after all, is made with tomatoes and other produce like, oh, jalapeño peppers.
CDC is hedging its bets this time around, saying it is looking at "certain restaurants" but refusing to name them. It's dropping little hints, though, saying it's not looking at chain restaurants.
All of this frustrates restaurateurs no end.
"To blame salsa brings nothing to the table," a Texas Restaurant Association executive told the Journal. "There's all kinds of salsas."
Symptoms of salmonella include bloody diarrhea, abdominal pain and fever.
It can cause serious and sometimes fatal infections particularly in young children, frail or elderly people, and those with weakened immune systems. Healthy people often experience fever, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain. In rare circumstances, the organism can get into the bloodstream and produce more severe illnesses.
Using the same system that allows a supermarket cashier to identify a piece of produce at the checkout counter could also allow investigators to trace the ...