The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is charged with developing a food traceability system to quickly track and trace foods as they move through the supply chain.
Outbreaks of foodborne illness prompted a number of high-profile food recalls during the past several years. Many of the recalls received media attention, not only because of the number of people who became ill or died as a result of consuming contaminated food, but also because of the complexities of pinpointing the offending food product or ingredient.
Measures to improve traceability within the U.S. food supply are among the key provisions of the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), which President Barack Obama signed into law on Jan. 4, 2011. FSMA contains provisions that expand the authority of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, such as mandatory recall authority (to be used when a company declines to issue a voluntary recall); the responsibility to develop a third-party audit system for the certification of imported foods; increasing the frequency of mandatory inspections; developing regulations for preventive control plans; establishing a product tracing system; and others (FSMA, 2011). Most food companies will then be required to implement the regulations in their day-to-day operations, maintain more detailed records, and register their food facilities biennially. The law applies to the FDA and the foods it regulates and not to the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, which regulates meat, poultry, and egg products.
The passage and ultimate signing of the FSMA into law was a long time coming. But the work is far from complete. The FDA has up to two years in some cases to develop and issue regulations and guidance documents that apply to the various provisions in the law, and it will conduct at least 12 rule-making sessions, giving opportunities for industry, government officials, and associations to provide input. Even though the FSMA is enacted, part of the challenge to the food industry is that it is not completely clear how the law will ultimately affect the industry, said Jennifer C. McEntire, Senior Staff Scientist and Director, Science and Technology Projects, Institute of Food Technologists.
Regarding product tracing, for instance, the law requires the FDA to develop a product tracing plan but gives the agency time to put it together by conducting pilot studies. So while industry knows that a product tracing plan will eventually be implemented, it will have to wait while the FDA conducts pilot studies, draws conclusions, and makes decisions, she explained.
Of course, there is also the issue of funding since some provisions, like the requirement for increased inspections, will be expensive. “I think it would be foolish to assume that lack of funding will hold FDA back,” said David Acheson, Managing Director, Leavitt Partners, one of four industry experts at the Food Safety Legislation Forum and webcast organized by IFT and sponsored by GS1 US. He explained to the more than 500 people in attendance at the Jan. 7, 2011, event that, even with limited funding, the FDA can take action now in areas like writing rules, developing requirements for certifications, and establishing pilot programs for traceability.
While the law addresses many aspects of food safety, this article will examine traceability and why experts believe that the eventual establishment of a product tracing system will help the FDA to both pinpoint contaminated foods and provide consumers with accurate information more quickly. It will also highlight some of the work IFT has done in the area of traceability.