Sen. Harkin Asks FDA For More Effective Food Safety Trace-Back SystemJul 17, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP Senator Tom Harkin, Democrat-Iowa and Chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry, today called on the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to initiate an effective trace-back system. Harkin is asking for a trace-back system that will effectively allow for tracing of the origins of fresh produce in food safety outbreaks. The call comes amid a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announcement that since April, 1196 persons have been infected with Salmonella, with cases in 42 states, the District of Columbia, and Canada. The FDA has not implemented the food protection plan it announced last year, which included focusing its resources on the highest risks, and has only gone so far as to have recently informed Congress on how much money is needed for the plan.
In a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Leavitt, Harkin wrote that the ongoing Salmonella outbreak proves that better coordination and communication among federal agencies, industry, and the states is needed as is a strong trace-back system to determine the source of food-borne illness outbreaks.
“Each food-borne outbreak seems to be larger than the next, and in this case, over a month has lapsed and the origins of this case are still unknown,” said Harkin. “The victims of this outbreak are growing by the day and don’t know what food made them sick because the source of contamination remains a mystery to the Food and Drug Administration. How do you tell over 1000 people we don’t know what made them sick? In the face of stark warnings about the vulnerability of our food supply, it is time for the government to take action and implement effective trace-back processes so that we can quickly track the origins of contaminated food products in order to prevent increasing cases of illness. It is long past time for the government to take comprehensive steps to increase our response to food-borne illness outbreaks.”
A new federal report on the “common-sense steps” which have been taken by other countries, including Japan, Canada, and Ireland provides a “practical guide to food safety.” Many are wondering why the US has not yet begun to follow at least some of the proven steps in the report, which was released this week by the U.S. Government Accountability Office. The report outlines steps that don’t involve large “government bureaucracies” but do seem to have some tangible solutions such as a "farm to table" policy in which safety laws cover every stage of food production, beginning at the field and following the food to shipper, processor, and so on, placing the bulk of food safety responsibility on food producers. The European Union tracks food from field to table in a "one step forward, one step back" system, wherein at each stage the company shipping or handling the food must know both its supplier and its customer.
It is the lack of such a tracking system that is contributing to why the FDA cannot find the source of the salmonella outbreak that has sickened nearly 1,500 people across the US.