The German government is currently enduring a lot of criticism for its handling of a foodborne illness outbreak. More than 2,300 cases of E. coli infection have been reported since early May, 16 people have died, and the European Union's Farm Commissioner, Dacian Ciolos, has proposed granting $220 million in aid to Spanish farms that were devastated after German health agencies incorrectly blamed the outbreak on cucumbers and other produce sourced from Spain.
This sounds familiar. For two months during the spring and summer of 2008, U.S. federal agencies said that domestic tomatoes were the most likely carriers of a rare strain of salmonella that ultimately caused more than 1,400 reported illnesses in the U.S. and Canada.
Ultimately, a jalapeno pepper farm was found to be the true source of the outbreak, but the news came a little late for tomato growers. At the time, Tommy Thompson, former secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, told CNN that the food scare had cost the U.S. tomato industry about $450 million.
During any foodborne illness outbreak, the public's safety is always the top priority. Grower revenues are not, and should never be, a factor during a major outbreak investigation by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration or the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Both of these cases, however, are very good examples of how dearly a bad early call can cost the produce industry, wherever the industry operates. The FDA and the CDC put out their best hypothesis during an emerging outbreak based on cross-referenced patient interviews, many taken days after those patients had gotten sick. Tracing foodborne illness outbreaks is currently a difficult and inexact science.
It always will be. That's why a weak and underfunded FDA poses a danger both to consumers and to food suppliers. That's why an FDA that can afford to conduct efficient and accurate investigations is an asset. Government oversight might not be the best option for suppliers, but it's the only option. The food industry is too large and too consolidated for there to be viable alternatives.
Under the Obama administration, the FDA is currently watching one industry effort closely. The Produce Traceability Initiative has drawn a lot of positive attention because full supply chain, farm-to-table electronic traceability might help mitigate illness outbreaks and limit the economic damage to farms that actually cause problems. Yet even among PTI member companies, only 82% of retailers and only 70% of foodservice operators reported that they were currently on track with PTI's milestone goals at the program's most recent Leadership Council meeting in May.
That's just companies that have already signed on with PTI, so why not 100%? For anyone currently standing on the sidelines, it's going to happen, whether PTI makes the rules, or the FDA just mandates them.