Lawmakers and public safety advocacy groups say that the only way to reduce the number of food-borne illnesses is to give the federal government better tools to trace food origin.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 76 million cases of food-borne illness occur annually — resulting in more than 300,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths.
“It is possible to trace the origins of our foods — industry is already doing it,” said U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette. “Unfortunately, we have a broken food safety system in this country that cannot determine the source of tainted foods while consumers continue to get sick.”
In the wake of a national outbreak of a rare form of salmonella, certain types of tomatoes were pulled from the shelves of grocery stores and the menus of restaurants. But people have continued to become sick — and officials at the CDC and Food and Drug Administration have widened their investigation.
The weeks-long investigation points to a major need for changes within the FDA, said officials at the Center for Science in the Public Interest in a letter to Andrew von Eschenbach, commissioner of the FDA.
“This massive outbreak might have been prevented if FDA had responded to the numerous produce outbreaks that preceded it,” said Michael F. Jacobson. “Repeated outbreaks linked to fresh produce have drained public confidence in the safety of this important food group.”
CSPI also is asking for emergency regulations to require fruit and vegetable producers, packers and processors to develop written plans to identify where contamination is likely to occur and how to prevent it.
A tracking system already is in place. Bar codes are used by retailers and similar codes could allow retailers, food safety investigators or curious consumers to know exactly what farm or company produced a product.
The salmonella investigation has highlighted the industry practice of repacking, which Jacobsen believes could be responsible for the outbreak. He said that repackers should be required to maintain information from each source to make it easier to trace individual products.