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Traceability - A Methodology Whose Time has Come

A recent article in the Chicago Tribune addressed the topics of "The Race To Trace Food Disease" and "U.S. Government Tries To Catch Up." The core subject was Mad Cow and the Washington State Holstein. However, in so doing, the newspaper also was covering a much broader field encompassing overall food safety and food security as seen from the Bioterrorism Act of 2002.

The House of Representatives and the Senate held separate agriculture committee meetings on the topic. On issues of this importance why not meet jointly to address the same subject in an effort to act with a joint resolution to the problems. Unfortunately, that is not the politics of
Congress. As I watched the full re-runs of both hearings on C-span, I found the experience was really a re-education on the workings of the Legislative Branch of government as it interfaces with the Executive Branch.

"Efforts to require traceability in this country have been slowed by politics," wrote Andrew Martin of the Chicago Tribune Washington Bureau.

The Tribune article also had this to say:

"The merits of a trace-back system have become apparent in the continuing investigation into Mad Cow disease. USDA investigators were able to quickly track the infected cow from Washington to its birthplace, a dairy farm in Alberta, because of a metal tag that was clipped to its ear before it was exported to the United States.

"But while the 80 other cows that were shipped with it also were tagged, officials acknowledge that ranchers routinely remove or replace the Canadian tags once the cows enter the United States. As a result, a lack of records has hampered investigators' efforts to track the other cows. That is important because they may have eaten the same contaminated feed.

"For instance, because investigators couldn't positively identify the offspring of the infected cow, the USDA was forced to slaughter an entire herd of 450 calves.

"Ron DeHaven, the USDA's chief veterinarian, said it was likely that the department won't locate all the cows from the infected cow's birth herd."

The article went on to say that the BSE problems and traceability are exactly mirrored in the FDA's search for the source of the green onions that caused extensive illness to over 950 Pittsburg-area restaurant patrons and a few deaths.

The Tribune went on to say this about the onion trace:

"(the onion trace)...... last fall was hampered by shoddy recordkeeping. Jack Guzewich, director of emergency coordination and response for the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, said one investigative trail went nowhere because a vegetable middleman 'literally had
no records.'"

The food security-oriented Bioterrorism Act, with some loopholes, was passed following Sept. 11. The overall food industry's apathy and lack of responsible action on the matter of "records and registration" has been noted.

The Bioterrorism Act required most parts of the farm-to-table food chain to register with the U.S. Government by early December of 2003. There are loopholes created by some granted exemptions. In the elapsed time, about one-half of those required to register have not done so. Also, as part of the same legislation, certain regulations were laid out on the matter of "record keeping." Perhaps the "vegetable middleman" has registered by now since in the early fall registration and record keeping were not required.

The entire food industry needs to wake up and take responsibility for its various aspects of food security and food safety. While the first law of the jungle or business is "to survive," the foodservice industry might learn a lesson from one of our own: Jack In The Box. That fast-food chain was faced with a business tragedy that at the time was seen by many to be probably fatal. Against all odds it went on to survive and, yes, even thrive. The Chicago Tribune reported the following:

"California-based Jack In The Box restaurants instituted a then-state-of-the-art food safety and traceability system after a 1993 E. coli outbreak sickened more than 700 people and killed four. David Theno, senior vice president of quality and logistics, said the company can use a computer system to trace all of the ingredients in a hamburger immediately after a complaint is made."

"Within no more than an hour, we will have a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle with 980 pieces filled in," he said. "There's always 20 pieces you're not going to find."

Carol Tucker Foreman, head of food policy at the Consumer Federation of America, said "the cattle industry has fought an identification system for decades and is now paying the price for its opposition."

"They're saying maybe in a couple years we'll have this pitiful poor voluntary program ready to go," Foreman complained. "The money they have lost in sales in the weeks since this [mad cow] was discovered is probably more than the cost of the program."

We beg this question: If a modest-sized hamburger chain can invent and institute a traceability system as thorough as the one described, why then can't the U.S. Government and the foodservice industry as whole do the same? The only conclusion is one we are left with: It is not in the best interest of the politics of food.

Great Britain and much of Europe learned the hard way from a near-financial catastrophe stemming from Mad Cow implications. Both British and European institutions have taken the painful and expensive steps to survive and are much the better for it. Perhaps the politics of food
(see Dr. M. Nestle's book by the same name) in the United States and elsewhere will soon wake up and smell the roses rather than the smell of rotting/decaying /condemned beef and poultry.

Grover Niemeier, foodservice management professional, is a member of the ID Access Editorial Advisory Board.

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