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.