Ohio senator stumps for food traceability bill

by Jay Sjerven
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WASHINGTON — Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio on Sept. 4, joined by a Cincinnati city councilman whose wife and daughter were hospitalized last May after consuming food tainted by E. coli, promoted legislation he introduced that would establish a system for tracing contaminated food through the production and distribution chain.

Mr. Brown, speaking at a Cincinnati community health center during the recent congressional Labor Day recess, pointed to the experience of Councilman Cecil Thomas, whose wife and daughter were hospitalized for what was diagnosed as a case of food poisoning, but the specific pathogen was unknown. The Thomas family later learned through their local grocery store’s food notification program that they purchased food contaminated with E. coli. The notification from the store assisted physicians in treating the councilman’s hospitalized daughter.

Mr. Brown said his bill, the Food Tracking Improvement Act (S. 3422), would help ensure the safety of American families by providing the federal government the ability to trace tainted foods back to their sources.

"If the postal service can track a package from my office in Washington to my office in Cincinnati, we should be able to do the same for food products," Mr. Brown said.

Mr. Brown introduced the Food Tracking Improvement Act on Aug. 1. The bill was referred to the Senate Committee on Health, Labor and Pensions, of which Mr. Brown is a Democratic member.

The bill would authorize $40 million over the next three fiscal years for establishing a national traceability system for all food. The system would be under the jurisdiction of the Food and Drug Administration and would be developed by a 13-member advisory committee composed of consumer advocates, industry leaders and representatives from the F.D.A.’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition and Office of Regulatory Affairs and from the Agricultural Marketing Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The secretary of H.H.S. would be responsible for selecting the committee members.

The bill indicated the advisory committee must meet within 180 days of enactment and produce a report within a year of enactment that advises the secretary of H.H.S. and the commissioner of the F.D.A. as to the most practicable approach to provide for the traceability of food, including the most efficient means of implementing the trace-back of contaminated foods.

The bill said the advisory committee should consider several approaches during the course of its deliberations, including a national food database or registry operated by the F.D.A.; standardized tracking numbers on all shipments that would identify the country of origin, the unique facility registration number, date of production and lot number, if practicable; recall performance standards for each food or commodity type; and safeguards for combining, repacking or otherwise mixing items of food, particularly fresh produce.

The bill also directed the committee to consider electronic records identifying each prior sale, purchase or trade of a food and its ingredients, and establishing that the food and its ingredients were grown, prepared and distributed under conditions to protect the safety of the food. The records would include an electronic statement with the date of each prior sale, purchase, or trade of a food and other information as appropriate, as well as the name and contact information of each party to such transactions.

The bill indicated with such a report in hand, the secretary of H.H.S. must establish no later than three years after enactment a traceability system for all stages of manufacturing, processing, packaging and distribution of food. The system must require each article of food shipped in interstate commerce to be identified in a manner that enables the secretary to retrieve the history, use and the location of the article through a recordkeeping and audit system, a secure, on-line database, or registered identification.

The bill indicated the secretary may require each party to the production, handling and distribution of food to maintain accurate records as prescribed regarding the purchase, sale and identification of the article, and those parties shall make records available for examination and copying by authorized representatives of the secretary.

Dr. Robert Brackett, senior vice-president and chief science and regulatory affairs officer, Grocery Manufacturers Association, said while the bill had some worthwhile ideas, it likely was too complex to implement.

"We ought to focus on foods that already have a high incidence of problems and learn what we can from that and then, if necessary, apply what is learned to other foods," Mr. Brackett said.

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Food Business News, September 16, 2008, starting on Page 34. Click here to search that archive.

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