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Poor Records Hamper FDA Food Poisoning Investigations

Mar 27, 2009 | Parker Waichman LLP The many, well-publicized food recalls and food borne illness outbreaks in recent months have consumers, advocates, and even the government looking at what is to blame and how the problems can be rectified.  According to Reuters, poor record keeping at the food handler level is, in part, at fault.

Because a good amount of food handlers in this country do not keep appropriate tracking records for food products such as milk and oatmeal, said Reuters, when outbreaks occur, it becomes nearly impossible to track the source.

A Health and Human Services (HHS) Department review revealed over half—59 percent—of all “foodmakers, transporters, warehouses, retailers, and other facilities” reviewed did not meet recording standards for “sources, recipients,” and food transporters, said Reuters; about 25 percent did not know they were required by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to maintain such records.  The review involved a 40-product traceback that included “milk, oatmeal, and leafy vegetables.”

"These findings demonstrate that more needs to be done to protect public health and to ensure the FDA has the necessary resources and tools to respond to a food emergency," Daniel Levinson, HHS’ inspector general, told a House of Representatives Appropriations subcommittee, reported Reuters.  "These factors would also limit FDA's ability to respond quickly and effectively to a food emergency," he added.  The HHS traceback test revealed that, for the most part, the facility that "likely" handled the product was identified; however, investigators had trouble determining the handler in four of five items that went through the complete supply chain, said Reuters.

The Bioterrorism Act of 2002 mandates produce processors and distributors—not restaurants and farms—to track food paths, which would then allow the FDA to initiate a traceback in the event of an outbreak.  But, shoddy record maintenance was highlighted in the inability to respond during last year’s massive salmonella outbreak.  In that case, the cause was first blamed on raw tomatoes and later found to be associated with Mexican peppers.  It took months to find the source and caused crippling financial hardships to U.S. tomato growers, not to mention multi-state illnesses.

We reported over the summer that, according to interviews and government reports, years ago, the food industry pressured the former Bush administration to limit the paperwork that companies would have to keep to help U.S. health investigators trace tainted produce.  Worse, the White House crushed plans requiring the industry to maintain electronic tracking records because it complained the proposals were too troublesome and expensive, adding that the proposals could disrupt the availability of consumers' favorite foods, especially fresh produce.  The result has been a recent and ongoing rash of food borne illnesses that have increased in severity and scope.  

Now, government is looking for more than just tracing, "Traceability today is simply not good enough," said Representative Rosa DeLauro, chairwoman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the FDA, said Reuters.  "It's inconsistent, unreliable and these findings confirm, what many in Congress already believe:  That we need to do better," said DeLauro, who has introduced a bill meant to improve food supply tracking, reported Reuters.

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