When most Americans buy ingredients to prepare food, purchase ready-to-eat foods, or seek a restaurant dining experience, they probably never give a second thought to where the food came from and whether it is safe to consume. This is because the U.S. food supply has earned a reputation of being one of the safest in the world. There are millions of meal experiences every day, and according to a 2011 Food Marketing Institute consumer survey, a majority of Americans feel somewhat or completely confident in the safety of the U.S. food supply. This is probably due to a variety of initiatives developed by the food industry as well as state and federal agencies.
Nevertheless, product safety issues can and do arise: According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), approximately one in six Americans get sick from food-borne pathogens, and when they do, the United States has a system in place to address them. Today, there are two critical aspects of this system including the Food Safety and Modernization Act (FSMA) and product traceability.
The FSMA was signed into law by President Obama in January 2011. The law allows the FDA to be more proactive in the pursuit of a safe food supply—that is, instead of merely responding to food contamination, food regulators now have the power and resources to try to prevent it. Among other things, the law sets forth the following preventive measures:
• The FDA will develop regulations that protect against intentional incidents of food contamination.
• The FDA will establish science-based standards for the safe growing and harvesting of fruits and vegetables.
• Each food facility must create and implement a written plan for preventive control that includes specific preventive steps, methods for monitoring, recordkeeping, and evaluations of hazards.
• The FDA will allow qualified third parties to certify that foreign food facilities comply with U.S. food safety standards and will mandate that high-risk imports be accompanied with certification from such third parties.
• The FDA can refuse the import of food from any foreign facility that denies access to the agency.
The FSMA also strengthens the options the FDA has at its disposal when an outbreak of a food-borne illness occurs. Clearly, enhancing the traceability of foods is at the forefront of U.S. food safety policies, but this is not only a domestic issue. Contaminated food products can originate from anywhere around the globe. The ability to successfully trace a contaminated product back to its origins empowers both food manufacturers and food regulators. Food manufacturers benefit by being able to detect and recall a product swiftly, thereby protecting consumers and maintaining their trust. Food regulators benefit by being able to detect more precisely the root cause of an outbreak, thus facilitating accurate decisions and effective strategies to identify, isolate, and eliminate contaminated food items in the supply chain.
IFT is bringing attention to the importance of product traceability through its collaboration with GS1 US for a three-part education series “Creating a Product Tracing Plan.” The program encompasses two webcasts and a live workshop and is designed to provide tutorials on using Critical Tracking Events (CTEs) and key data elements to develop a successful traceability program. And even though there are many companies offering proprietary data systems to enhance product traceability, most of these systems are incongruent with each other. In essence, too many different tracing systems make product tracing sketchy and disconnected; one uniform system is necessary to ensure consistent results. To that end, GS1 US is appealing to the FDA to use GS1 resources to develop a system of standard product identifications, barcodes, and other electronic data. Several countries around the world are already using the GS1 system for tracking shipments of fresh produce, meat, seafood, and poultry.
Early this year, IFT held a food safety forum that focused on explaining the different aspects of the FSMA, such as third-party certification and product traceability. An audience of more than 700 food professionals participated in this free IFT member event, either in person or via webcast. In addition, the Food Safety & Quality Pavilion at this year’s Annual Meeting & Food Expo will feature food-safety ideas for instrumentation, services, processing, and packaging. Although worldwide product traceability may seem like a daunting task, the benefits of such a uniform system are innumerable. A user-friendly system that is globally implemented is a lofty goal, but as food safety advocates, we should do whatever we can to help bring this concept to fruition.
Robert B. Gravani,
IFT President, 2010–2011
Professor of Food Science, Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y.