Traceability – Getting on the front burner?

The senate passed finally s.510 last week, which is supposing the biggest overhaul of the nation’s food safety system in decades. Even though it has stalled due to clerical mistakes, I am confident that it will become final within a matter of a couple of month now. I’m not sure though that anything will change that significantly for the food producers in the US.

First, USDA regulated foods are not affected by this regulation. It is actually a matter of fact that companies in the meat industry have made on their own significant strives over the past decades to establish pretty good traceability systems. These systems allowed, that the industry never had, as long as I can remember, any outbreaks that were not traceable to a single company affected within a reasonable amount of time. The industry was largely able to withdraw or recall affected product isolated to the incident and the implicated companies. Legislators did pretty well not touching pretty well working systems.

FDA regulated foods did not fare as well as meats and fish. Multiple different recalls, such as Melamine in Petfood, Spinach, the tomato outbreak that was caused by jalapenos and others have not only affected the bad players in the industry, but took all supply chain participants with them down. Retailers did not have any other choice then suspending the sale of all potentially affected product until the source of the outbreak was located. This took in most of these instances months of investigation.

With the enactment of the food modernization act, or enhanced food safety act, this is supposed to change, but will it?

Some of the preventive measures in the passed legislation will increase inspection frequencies and put some teeth to it, by empowering FDA officials to act on their findings. This in itself should provide food companies with enough incentives to improve on their HACCP plans and reduce the number of outbreaks from a get go.

In cases though that outbreaks do happen, the legislation will not make much difference. We will have long periods of investigation better technologies for traceability, we will have long pilot studies and probably another 3-4 years until FDA issues final rulings for a better protection of consumers and the innocent participants in the food supply.

Technology companies are spending enormous amounts of money to develop technologies and are participating in lobbying effort to place their technology at the heart of these rulings. These are no small players. IBM is participating with its traceability server, Tibco is already involved in case studies with the FDA with prove of concepts “If we would have had that information, we could have isolated the incident” at the example of tomatoes. HP, Microsoft, GS1, you name it. Anybody that has enough money to invest is trying to make a case.

When I look at all these efforts, it seems to me that we deal with the issue largely from a rear mirror perspective. Similar to air travel security, we take incidents where our security and safety systems failed and try to contain the issue with more thorough inspections and screenings until the next incident happens. If we keep doing this, we will at some point outspend ourselves on the most essential products and services to the degree that nobody can effort them anymore. If I check today a transatlantic flight, I can see that there are already $200 of additional fees tagged on to the costs of my flight ticket.

The technologies being discussed with RFID, smart tags, etc. will significantly change the costs of our food supply. Legislators would be better of passing laws to mandate certain treatments, such as pasteurization of milk and eggs, radiation of produce and vegetables and others.

At least one thing will hold true, the new legislation will trigger investments like a hidden stimulus bill. It will keep us active, though not productive.

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