Major food industry trade associations last week rebutted statements made in a recent Associated Press article that lobbying efforts by the industry in 2003 and 2004 watered down record-keeping rules under the Bioterrorism Act of 2002, making it harder for federal agencies to trace the source of the many foodborne illnesses that have surfaced in the past 24 months.
At the same time, the trade groups pointed out that the food industry is currently working to improve traceability of tainted products, especially produce, by establishing standard data points that would be recorded and stored throughout the supply chain.
According to the article, a former member of the Bush administration's cabinet and three former officials of the Food and Drug Administration told the AP that “government food safety experts did not get the strong record-keeping and traceback system originally proposed under a bioterrorism law to cope with a major foodborne illness.”
Citing these officials and government reports, the article said the food industry “pressured the Bush administration to limit the paperwork companies would have to keep.” In addition, the article said, a plan to maintain electronic tracking records was killed by the White House, resulting in a “paper record-keeping system that has slowed investigators.”
The article said food industry business groups met “at least 10 times” with the White House between March 2003 and March 2004, as the FDA regulations were under debate. Participants in the meetings, it added, included representatives of the Food Marketing Institute, Kroger, Safeway, Altria Group, ConAgra Foods and Procter & Gamble, among others. Lobbying expenditures by the Grocery Manufacturers Association were also cited.
An SN story published in the Sept. 9, 2002, issue quoted FMI as saying that “much of the information that the FDA could gather under the section of the act related to record keeping is already held by the industry and is routinely used to conduct efficient product recalls.”
This focus on the lobbying efforts by the food industry comes as the FDA and U.S. Centers for Disease Control have come under severe criticism by industry groups for their handling of the recent tomato recalls. (See SN, “Salmonella Traceback Frustrates Industry,” Page 1, July 28, 2008.)
Deborah White, FMI's senior vice president and chief legal officer, acknowledged that in 2003 FMI filed comments on the FDA's proposed record-keeping regulations under the Bioterrorism Act. “FMI supported the overall goal of the Bioterrorism Act,” she said in an email communication. “However, the proposed requirements would have forced the industry to waste precious hours on paperwork when first alerted to a threat, when that time would be best spent acting to protect the public by removing potentially unsafe products from stores and alerting consumers.”
The Bioterrorism Act “was not designed to create a comprehensive food traceability system,” White said, because it exempts the restaurant and foodservice industry as well as farms. FMI, she added, supports a traceability system that tracks products “from each commodity group, from the farm to all retail outlets at which consumers purchase food.” Such as system “should be developed through a public-private partnership.”
FMI is currently working with industry partners to develop traceability systems for each commodity group, White said. “These must be tailored to fit the unique distribution, tracking and communication methods of different commodities. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. At the same time, common communications protocols are needed to enable retailers, at the end of the supply chain, to trace back all foods.”
Kathy Means, vice president of government relations and public affairs for the Produce Marketing Association, Newark, Del., disputed the notion that “the industry tried to make the regulations less safe than they needed to be.” Comments made at the time “were aimed at making the regulations more effective,” she added.
Means said she considers the record-keeping regulations of the Bioterrorism Act — requiring retailers and others in the supply chain to keep records of a food's immediate previous source and immediate subsequent recipient, or “one-up, one back” — to be “very strict.” Moreover, the rules call for records to be provided to the government within 24 hours, with penalties to be assessed on any company not in compliance.
Still, PMA is trying to improve on the federal regulations, spearheading an effort to develop standards that would make current traceback systems “more effective and quicker,” said Means. This program, the Produce Traceability Initiative, calls for the use of three pieces of information with every produce case — the global trade identification number (GTIN), lot number, and harvest or pack date. The information would be incorporated into a bar code that would be read and stored electronically by all players in the supply chain.
“We want something on the produce box that everybody can read,” said Means. Participants in the initiative, including food retailers and growers, plan to meet Aug. 20 to establish “final milestones” for adoption of the standards.
(PMA President Bryan Silbermann testified about traceback efforts before Congress last week. See the story on Page 25.)
The use of electronic records in the Produce Traceability Initiative would address one of the flaws cited by critics of the Bioterrorism Act — that it does not require electronic record keeping.
GMA is of the opinion that the current traceback system works “exceptionally well, especially for packaged and processed food products,” said Brian Kennedy, a GMA spokesman. “In the vast majority of cases, the source of a contamination is identified within hours.”
However, Kennedy added, a better traceability system is needed for fresh produce, which is often commingled in the supply chain so “their original source is easily lost.”