TOPICS > Science

Tracking Tainted Food a Near Impossibility in U.S.

October 8, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Lee Hochberg reports on the difficulty in tracking the source of tainted foods and the complicated trail from production to sale.
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LEE HOCHBERG: Food contamination reports in the U.S. have been frequent …

RAY SUAREZ: Now new questions about food safety and beef.

LEE HOCHBERG: … and tragic in the last couple of years.

MARGARET WARNER: The outbreak has killed at least eight and sickened another 500 people.

LEE HOCHBERG: Nine died and more than 700 were poisoned this winter when they ate salmonella-tainted peanut products. Almost 1,400 were sickened last year by tainted peppers. There were recalls for cookie dough, gravy sauces, cocoa mix. And that wasn’t all that unusual. The CDC estimates 5,000 people in the U.S. die each year from food-borne illnesses.

What aggravates the problem is how long it takes the food industry and FDA to trace the source of tainted food. It took several months to track peanut products to the Peanut Corporation of America processing plant in Georgia, three months to find the origin of salmonella in the peppers. Tracking food from stores and restaurants back through the food chain of distributors, packers, truckers, processors, and to the farm is fraught with roadblocks and confusion. It’s chaos, says Colorado Congresswoman Diana DeGette.

REP. DIANA DEGETTE, D-Col.: We don’t have any uniform system of record-keeping that both keeps track of — of the specific ingredients, and where they started and where they ended up. It’s just catch as catch can. Different people might have records in different boxes. It’s almost like a scavenger hunt to try to find all of these records.

LEE HOCHBERG: DeGette co-sponsored a bill to give the FDA, which regulates all food, except meat and poultry, more enforcement power and require food suppliers to keep more detailed records.

Fruits and vegetables from California farms are sorted through the night at Cooks Produce, a food distributor at San Francisco’s produce market. Workers pack it for dawn delivery to groceries and restaurants.

MAN: Savoy spinach is here, folks. It’s right here.

Tracing food

LEE HOCHBERG: Owner Rick Tombari is proud of his produce. But he says, if asked, he couldn't say exactly where it all comes from.

RICK TOMBARI, owner, Cooks Company: From looking at the box, it would seem like this was grown in Salinas, California. But, actually, it shipped in season from Arizona and California. It really doesn't tell you very much information as to where the product was grown.

LEE HOCHBERG: And there isn't any other paperwork that accompanies this delivery that might tell you that?

RICK TOMBARI: Right now, what is on the invoice that comes from the broker is the product of USA.

LEE HOCHBERG: That's it?

RICK TOMBARI: That's it.

LEE HOCHBERG: Just USA? So, there's -- if we needed to trace this back to the field...

RICK TOMBARI: Couldn't do it. You couldn't do it.

LEE HOCHBERG: As a distributor, he's not required to keep records of such things. The law requires only processors, packers, and manufacturers to maintain lot-specific information. He says he doesn't know what he would tell FDA inspectors about these onions he got from a broker in Mexico.

RICK TOMBARI: But where do these onions come from? Who grew them? What part of Mexico did they really come from? I couldn't tell you. Now maybe a broker could tell you.

LEE HOCHBERG: We dialed up the broker.

RICK TOMBARI: Do you know exactly where these are grown in Mexico? Or is there a way I could find out?

LEE HOCHBERG: Another call to the person the broker had bought from finally revealed the source.

RICK TOMBARI: It actually doesn't exist on paper.

LEE HOCHBERG: Doesn't exist on paper.

RICK TOMBARI: Doesn't exist on paper. And he said that they are grown over the border in Tijuana and down towards Ensenada.

LEE HOCHBERG: But there's no...

RICK TOMBARI: At that point...

LEE HOCHBERG: But there's no paper trail of...

RICK TOMBARI: There is no paper trail.

LEE HOCHBERG: ... of where these onions come from?

RICK TOMBARI: Not that were aware of.

LEE HOCHBERG: In a recent study, federal researchers from the federal Department of Health and Human Services were able to track only five of 40 food items from the grocery store back to the farm. Meredith Seife is deputy regional inspector general.

MEREDITH SEIFE, deputy regional inspector general, Department of Health And Human Services: Most facilities, 59 percent, weren't keeping the records they are supposed to keep. And we found that, even when they were keeping what they were supposed to keep, that it was still not enough to ensure that the food supply was completely traceable.

LEE HOCHBERG: Congresswoman DeGette's food safety law, which has passed the U.S. House, but awaits action in the Senate, would require FDA to develop rules for better record-keeping. There is a model for this. Jim Nollmeyer is doing it voluntarily with his wheat crop near Spokane, Washington. Nollmeyer and nearby farmers keep their batches of wheat separate from each other. Normally, everyone's wheat would go to a nearby milling plant and be mixed, so tracing it would be impossible. But Nollmeyer is part of Shepherd's Grain cooperative, which markets its sustainable agriculture methods, and promises customers they can tell how and where its farmers grew their grain.

JIM NOLLMEYER, farmer: So, it came from this field, this field, or this field.

LEE HOCHBERG: Nollmeyer keeps detailed growing records.

JIM NOLLMEYER: I'm kind of proud of that, you know, that I can do that, that I have those records. And, if somebody wants to know, I can show them. Hand-scribbled, but I can show them.

The problem with new standards

LEE HOCHBERG: The American Farm Bureau argues, requiring farmers to keep such detail is the wrong solution. It says contamination usually occurs later in the food chain, as in the case of the contaminated peanut products. The Farm Bureau's Kelli Ludlum.

KELLI LUDLUM, farm policy specialist, American Farm Bureau: The peanuts in that case coming off of the farm were perfectly safe. In no cases, have there been any problems linked to the peanuts themselves. The salmonella that made people sick occurred in the processing plant. And, so, it doesn't necessarily make sense to trace every peanut and put tough new standards on producers that ultimately increase their cost of production.

LEE HOCHBERG: Nollmeyer agrees there is a cost.

JIM NOLLMEYER: I would say I would have to add 5 percent anyway, probably $20,000 in -- in management costs and in the time Barb puts in keeping all these things.

LEE HOCHBERG: Barb is his wife, who keeps the records. She says, though, if any of their wheat was suspect, she could produce tracking data in a lick.

BARB NOLLMEYER, Farmer: Twenty minutes.

LEE HOCHBERG: That's all?

BARB NOLLMEYER: Yes, truly, because I know where it is and I know exactly what I'm looking for.

LEE HOCHBERG: Author Michael Pollan, who wrote "In Defense of Food," thinks tracing is a Band-Aid solution to a much larger problem.

MICHAEL POLLAN, author, "In Defense of Food": Aunt Mabel's potato salad at the church supper, you know, has been killing people for 100 years, you know, but very, very few people, because it was so decentralized. But once the equivalent of Aunt Mabel's potato salad is feeding 10 million, 20 million people in a week, all coming out of one processing facility, that's when the problem gets big. All these schemes for traceability are imperfect attempts to deal with the fact that the food system is -- the food chain is so long, and we do not know who's preparing our food anymore.

LEE HOCHBERG: But some consumers want to know now where their food comes from.

DOROTHY LAWHEAD, consumer: I'm -- I'm looking to have healthy food. I just like the idea of being able to find out a little bit more about the food that -- that I'm purchasing.

LEE HOCHBERG: Dorothy Lawhead of Spokane was examining a traceability feature, called Find the Farmer, promoted on the label of Stone-Buhr Flour. That flour is made from the wheat we saw being carefully sorted in Spokane.

DOROTHY LAWHEAD: Yes. There -- so, there's a Web site on here, and, somewhere, there's a number on here that tells me how I can find out about this particular batch.

LEE HOCHBERG: Stone-Buhr president Josh Dorf believes traceability is marketable.

JOSH DORF, president, Stone-Buhr Flour: Consumers are very interested. We have had thousands and thousands of unique visitors to the Web site that are tracing packages of their flour to learn a little bit more. They get to feel connected again to where their food is coming from.

JIM NOLLMEYER: My name is Jim Nollmeyer, and I farm northeast of Reardan.

LEE HOCHBERG: As consumers explore methods to track their food, Congress will be deciding how the FDA can assure better traceability as well. The Senate will debate the new food safety bill in the fall.