Food Safety: A Vital Issue for Our Health and Our Economy

Posted August 25, 2009 at 12:22pm

When Congress resumes its work on health care reform this fall, another vital, but less-publicized effort will be under way on Capitol Hill to improve another critical dimension of public health: reducing the spread of food-borne illness.[IMGCAP(1)]The U.S. government clearly recognizes the serious health threat of contaminated food. In July, the House of Representatives passed the Food Safety Enhancement Act, which would give the FDA authority to issue mandatory food recalls, require the food industry to develop safety plans to prevent food contamination, and mandate more frequent inspections of our food supply. The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, a bill with similar goals sponsored by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), will be considered by the Senate sometime after the summer recess.According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 76 million Americans are sickened each year by food-borne illnesses, leading to the hospitalization of 325,000 people and causing 5,000 deaths.With the legislation in the House passed, the Senate needs to act after the recess to reduce the risks and costs of food-borne illness. But increased authority and inspections are only a partial fix for our food safety problems. Unfortunately today, outbreaks of E. coli or salmonella spread faster than our ability to identify the sources of tainted food. We need more detailed record-keeping of the U.S. food supply so that we can more quickly trace the sources of food-borne illnesses when they occur. Over the past two years, a wide range of foods, including spinach, tomatoes, jalapeño peppers, peanut butter, ground beef and pistachio nuts have been recalled because of illness-causing contamination. Refrigerated cookie dough is among the more recent recalls.We have an opportunity now to modernize the methods we use to maintain up-to-date information on the food we eat. We can bring greater transparency to our supply chain by tracking such data as the source of food, delivery dates and geographic distribution. Consumers would then have the information they need to make their buying decisions. Food producers and government agencies would have the information necessary to protect the public health whenever an outbreak of food-borne illness occurs.Speed is essential in removing contaminated items from food stores and homes, containing the spread of illness, and keeping down the costs associated with treating those sickened. Other countries have turned to new technologies to track food from farm to supermarkets. Based on global standards, these technologies allow all the players in the food supply chain to capture, manage and share necessary data concerning the foods we eat. Such systems can help create a smarter, faster, more effective system for monitoring the U.S. food supply, as well. The Norwegian Ministry of Agriculture and Food, for example, is working to establish a nationwide infrastructure by 2010 that will allow the exchange of information across its entire food supply chain. Today, Norway’s largest producer of meat and eggs, Nortura BA, uses radio frequency identification technology to track meat from farm to processing plants, and then to distribution centers and stores. While some in the food industry may resist mandates for more detailed records, improving food traceability can ultimately mean fewer costly recalls. Currently, the industry, which represents 13 percent of gross domestic product, spends tens of millions of dollars each year to remove recalled products from store shelves. In addition to immediate costs, future sales can also be hurt when consumers lose confidence in the brands recalled for health and safety concerns. In a recent IBM survey, approximately 1 in 10 consumers said they would never repurchase an item that was the subject of a recall. The other business at stake is the valuable export markets for U.S. agricultural products. To keep those markets open, we must have the ability to track and trace those products to the satisfaction of the countries buying the goods. Some of those countries, such as Japan, have more stringent traceability requirements than we have in the United States. Exports of U.S. agricultural products have been restricted or banned in certain cases because of shortcomings in tracking and tracing our products. In these tough economic times, we need to keep markets open for U.S. exports.Protecting our food supply is a public health imperative and an economic imperative. Technology can help. While technology cannot prevent all food-borne illness, it can speed the process of uncovering the causes of outbreaks, limit the numbers of people who are sickened or die, and protect our export markets. For these reasons, we need to improve the overall safety of our food supply, which people around the world rely on every day for their health and livelihoods.Tom Romeo is vice president, government sector, for IBM.