In an age of globalization, safety standards are taking center stage as tainted food and product recalls diminish consumer confidence in both fresh and prepared foods. The repeated addition of melamine to products and ingredients from China has highlighted a need for standardized traceability along the food chain. As with last summer’s Salmonella outbreak, the food industry is taking the lead in searching for solutions, while working with governments to define industry-wide standards.
In a recent survey by Ipsos Public Affairs, 79% of consumers said they believe most food safety concerns are related to imported foods. And 81% of those surveyed said food processing companies should accept a "great deal" of responsibility for food safety.
While food companies were mandated by the Food and Drug Administration’s (F.D.A.) Bioterrorism Act to be able to trace food one step up and one step back along the supply chain, this has proved difficult. The absence of standardized tracking, especially on an international scale, has compounded the problem.
"When the Chinese melamine situation popped up, a lot of questions were being asked," said Clay Detlefsen, vice-president of regulatory affairs and counsel at the International Dairy Foods Association. "People were asking, ‘Are any of these ingredients in U.S. products?’ Certainly the F.D.A. is on an insane chase to find things that contain these ingredients."
Mr. Detlefsen said he and other members of his association started examining traceability in the U.S. dairy industry about a year ago. They began by conducting factory tours and examining product labels and packaging.
"Companies were supposed to be tracking lot codes per the Bioterrorism Act, but we found there was no standardization with regard to lot coding," he said. "There was some talk at the time, and has been action since the first melamine incident, about taking a standardized approach to lot coding. People have spent an enormous amount of time tracking down melamine where it doesn’t even exist. We think lot codes could help with that."
Several companies make electronic traceability software, such as TraceAssured, of Northern Ireland, and Ross Enterprises, Atlanta. In fact, Dah Chong Hong, a Hong Kong-based food distributor that serves mainland China, announced plans to implement Ross Enterprise software for food safety compliance earlier this year.
"We’ve got a challenge in front of us, and it’s best to engage and come up with a solution than wait for the government to mandate something," Mr. Detlefsen noted.
Mr. Detlefsen said his organization presented a traceability plan before Congress and has hopes that pending legislation might be taken up next year. But he realizes manufacturers have more at stake in the short term.
Companies take first steps
Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., Bentonville, Ark., announced a new transparency and sustainability initiative Oct. 22 at a meeting of its Chinese suppliers in Beijing.
Wal-Mart outlined a series of requirements for its suppliers, including higher standards for product safety and quality, and greater transparency and ownership. By 2009, the company said it will require all direct import suppliers, plus all suppliers of private label and non-branded products, to provide the name and location of every factory they use to make the products it sells.
On the same day, the United Nations released a report recommending increased oversight of food safety in China to bring the country in line with international norms. It also called for businesses to be held accountable for the products they sell. The report recommended forming a unified Chinese regulatory agency, since food regulatory duties are split between several agencies.
Chinese officials said Oct. 23 they were reviewing a draft of a more stringent food safety law. The proposed law would strengthen provisions "to prevent the improper use and misuse of food additives," and prompt local governments to issue recall orders to companies that don’t proactively recall problem products.
F.D.A. offers recommendations
On Oct. 17, the F.D.A. said it plans to send inspection staff to China, India, Europe and Latin America before the end of 2008. The first overseas office will be in China, with staff on site in Beijing expected later this year.
The F.D.A. issued guidance for U.S. food manufacturers in light of the Chinese melamine situation on Oct. 19, recommending that companies:
• Know the precise origin of each milk-derived ingredient, such as those sourced from countries other than China that could actually originate from China.
• Determine that milk-derived ingredients originating from China are free of melamine and its analogues prior to usage.
• For food manufactured in the last 12 months that might still be on the shelf at retail or in stock elsewhere, determine whether the food might contain any milk-derived ingredients from China. If any such foods exist, verify that they do not contain melamine or its analogues.
This article can also be found in the digital edition of Food Business News, October 28, 2008, starting on Page 44. Click