FDA partner starts work on food-tracing pilot projects

Sep 7, 2011 (CIDRAP News) – The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said today that it is moving forward with two pilot projects designed to help public health investigators and companies more quickly and effectively trace foods.

The projects are part of a measure required by this year's FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, which directs the agency to establish record-keeping standards for high-risk foods.

The Institute of Food Technologists (IFT), a nonprofit scientific society based in Chicago, will carry out the two pilot programs—one for processed foods and one for fresh produce—under the FDA's direction and under an existing contract.

Each pilot will include three types of food that have been linked to major foodborne illness outbreaks within the last 5 years, along with a variety of different types of companies along the supply chain.

During a stakeholder teleconference today announcing the launch of the pilot programs, Sherri McGarry, senior advisor in the FDA office of foods, said a stronger product tracing system will help the FDA and companies more quickly remove contaminated food from the market and help provide a more focused message to consumers when outbreaks of foodborne illness occur.

Michael Taylor, PhD, the FDA's deputy commissioner for foods, said in a statement today, "We can prevent illnesses and reduce the economic impact to the food industry if we can more quickly determine what foods may be causing an outbreak and what foods can be eliminated from consideration."

McGarry said the first step in the pilot programs is to determine the type of data that would be useful for tracing, determine ways to connect different points on the supply chain, and gauge how quickly the information can be shared with the FDA. She added that the FDA doesn't plan to recommend a specific technology but instead to focus on the elements of the system.

The FDA's goal is to involve growers and food companies in the design and implementation of the pilot programs so that the system reflects the diversity of the food supply and is practical for businesses, McGarry said. The FDA and IFT will hold three stakeholder meetings as work on the pilot program and rule making for record keeping progresses.

Jennifer McEntire, senior staff scientist and director at IFT, told stakeholders that the pilot programs will be designed to have minimal changes for business systems. A goal is to make better use of data that industry already collects, find ways to make better connections between data points, and ease rapid analysis. She said IFT expects to complete the pilot tracing studies by early March 2012.

As part of the pilots, IFT and the FDA will also conduct mock trace-backs and consult with other federal agencies, state partners, and consumer groups, according to background information about the program posted on the FDA's Web site. In 2009 IFT conducted a mock trace-back scenario for tomatoes, which included participants from industry, universities, state government, and technology companies.

The project will also include a cost-benefit analysis of adopting and using product tracing technologies.

The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, signed into law by President Barack Obama on Jan 4, is the most significant food safety law in several decades. It requires the nation's food facilities to develop contamination-prevention plans, calls for more frequent inspections, increases imported food monitoring, expands FDA access to food records, calls for improved foodborne-disease surveillance and tracing of contaminated food, and arms the FDA with the authority to order food recalls.

See also:

Sep 7 FDA press release

FDA background on product tracing pilot projects

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