The struggle to trace produce from farm to table

Oct 16, 2012

When he’s on the road, Del Smith’s home is his blue-and-silver 18-wheeler. The tidy cab has everything that Smith, who is a slight mustachioed man, needs for a long haul: a fridge for his iced tea, a bunk made with a blanket decorated with cowboy boots, a first-aid kit. In his 62 years of life, Smith’s survived near-death experiences riding rodeo, flying helicopters in Vietnam and, most recently, an industrial accident in Texas. He never thought his next brush with death would take place right here in his truck, after buying a cantaloupe in July from a Byron, Ill., farm stand.

“I bought a muskmelon and two watermelons and I ate most of the muskmelon myself Saturday and Sunday,” Smith said, sitting in his truck in a Wal-Mart parking lot in Mexico, Mo.

Three days after eating the melon, Smith said, he began to feel violently ill.

“I stopped Wednesday night at 5:30 p.m. … and crawled into the bunk at about 6:30 p.m.,” he said. “I fell asleep and 11 p.m. I woke up thinking I was going to die. I’ve never been so sick.”

Thinking it was a stomach bug he could kick, Smith lay on his bunk for two days, only pulling himself up to run to the bathroom because of diarrhea and throwing up. Friday morning, when he realized he was having trouble holding himself up, he managed to get himself to the nearest hospital. Soon after, a nurse told him he had salmonella and that he was lucky to be alive.

“They said if I’d stayed in the truck another day or two, I’d never have made it out,” he said.

Smith got back to work in August, and by then salmonella had sickened nearly 200 people in 21 states. Two people had even died. Then the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, did an inspection that linked cantaloupes at Chamberlain Farms in Indiana to salmonella. The melons were recalled, but the outbreak didn’t end until October. To date, the tainted fruit has caused 261 to get sick, 94 to be hospitalized and three to die.

The cantaloupe that made Smith sick was not a rare incident. In 2011, one in six Americans got sick from a foodborne illness and 3,000 died, according to the CDC. Contaminated produce is not always responsible – meat, seafood, peanuts and dairy also are big culprits -- but a Listeria outbreak last year that also involved cantaloupe from Jensen Farms in Colorado was the deadliest U.S. foodborne disease outbreak in more than 90 years. Although the FDA and CDC were quick to investigate, experts say detecting the sources of outbreaks like these could be faster.

“We need whole chain traceability so we’re all speaking the same language,” said Dan Vaché, vice president of supply chain management for the United Fresh Produce Association. “So that when there is a problem, the FDA can quickly trace that back and know where that product came from and even more importantly where did it go.”

United Fresh Produce Association joined with two other trade groups to form the Produce Traceability Initiative (PTI) in 2008. The initiative now has 34 members on its leadership council that are calling for, among other things, a common bar code to be placed on every product.  They would also like the industry to adopt shared software that would allow a company to trace back any given fruit or vegetable to its source and share its records with the FDA within 48 hours. Right now that process can take weeks.

“With the cantaloupe [outbreak] last year, the company went out of business,” Vaché said. “They didn’t have good traceability. They didn’t have good agriculture practices within their facility for food safety. If you’re not going to get serious about traceability and food safety, then you have to consider, are you in the right business?”

A new law could force the produce industry – from top to bottom -- to get serious about traceability though. President Obama signed the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act last January. Among other things, it requires the industry to adopt new traceability measures that could include a universal bar code system. But in December 2011, the act was sent to the federal Office of Management and Budget for a cost-benefit analysis. And there it remains. There’s speculation that the FDA may have trouble enforcing the law with a shrinking budget, and that small businesses are pushing back against getting on board with the new regulations. But it may be that figuring out an industry solution for tracing foods back to their sources is an extremely complex problem to solve. 

Liberty Fruit Co., in Kansas City, Kan., understands the challenge. The company gets 26 million pounds of fruit and vegetables each week from suppliers all over the country before repacking and delivering them to grocery stores, restaurants and other customers in nine states from Iowa to Texas. Like all food handlers and growers, Liberty is required by the Bioterrorism Act of 2002 to keep records "one up, one down," or who it buys products from and who it sells products to. The company has gotten as many as eight recalls a week in the past, according Scott Danner, Liberty's chief operating officer.

“So this is one of our coolers,” said Danner, during a walk through the company’s 185,000 square-foot facility. “This would be our citrus, soft veg[etable] 45-degree cooler … Most of our product is kept at 32 to 35 degrees. Cold.”

Bachata music blasts over a loudspeaker as workers buzz around us on lift trucks piled high with boxes of bell peppers, squash, pineapples, limes, strawberries, blackberries and asparagus. As we don hairnets and walk into the tomato packing room, Danner says the company can alert its buyers to a recalled product within 24 hours thanks to the company’s own system of computerized codes it stickers on each box of produce.

“There’s a lot sticker that tells us … whose tomato this is,” he said, as a line of eight workers pack tomatoes in boxes headed to fast-food restaurants like Sonic and Burger King. “This is Wendy’s tomatoes.”

The sticker signals to the company what lot and cooler the tomatoes are from (which in this case is Cooler M). Danner, who also sits on the Produce Traceability Initiative leadership council, says Liberty’s been using this system for years and that the company would be up for moving over to a universal bar code system but it’s not going to be cheap.

“Is it going to happen? I don’t know,” he said. “It's going to be very, very costly. For us to implement that program is a half a million dollars. And truthfully right now we have yet to have one customer ask us about PTI or produce traceability.”

Danner says unless there’s a law requiring it, selling heads of produce companies on such pricey upgrades will not be easy.

“It’s mainly the cost of implementing that throughout the whole spectrum of our industry. I mean you’re talking grower level, importer level, shipper, retailer, food service, hotels, casinos,” he said. “I mean I’ve heard numbers in the billions.”

While lawmakers decide how to move forward on the Food Safety Modernization Act rules, the produce industry is making the point that it’s not shying away from food safety concerns. And with better technology on the market that’s able to detect pathogens in everything from peanuts to beef, every second counts. 

The Food Safety Modernization Act could force the produce industry -- from top to bottom -- to get serious about traceability rules. Here's a look at the path our fruits and vegetables take, from the grower to the consumer.
Credit Graphic courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

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