"This bill is going to change a lot of the things we do, and put them on a knowledge basis instead of just an intuitive basis," Plunkett says. Some food system processes are based on habit and tradition rather than science, he notes. Often food producers say, "My father did it this way, and I do it this way, and we've never had a problem," he explains. But putting science-based standards into the equation might hedge off hazardous practices and avoid the need for many recalls in the future.
Laboratory test kitchen
In suspected food contamination cases the burden of proof has largely been on the FDA to establish a case to obtain company records. And even when the situation looked to be potentially dangerous, the agency could only recommend the company issue a recall.
Although the new bill would make it easier for the FDA to obtain company records and check for contamination, the agency will not be continuously monitoring the paper trail—or the food itself. The agency would still have "to have sort of a basis to ask for" laboratory test results and records, Olson explains. But the legislation would require food companies to use either federal or accredited labs (rather than company-chosen labs as is currently allowed) to test food safety, a step that should ensure easier regulatory access if a problem does crop up.
In the 2009 peanut butter salmonella outbreak records showed that several batches had raised red flags, but the company "believed they didn't have an obligation to share those test results because they didn't actually ship those lots," Olson says.
Making companies more accountable for providing lab tests and other internal documents might discourage them from letting safety standards slide. "Instead of letting people get sick and then finding out what's wrong—where people are the guinea pig[s]—[the goal is] putting into practice some standards" to hopefully prevent food from becoming contaminated in the first place, Plunkett says.
In addition to spotting potential problems sooner, increased surveillance should help boost knowledge about the contaminants and food safety in general. "This bill will give us a very good basis for improving our knowledge," Plunkett says. "It's going to help the FDA develop a knowledge base that it needs."
As more data are collected as part of the bill's requirements, government agencies should be able to pinpoint trends in high-risk products and processes. The new information might also help in finding the origin of the millions of food poisoning cases whose sources are unknown. "The vast majority of people getting sick, we don't know the food they ate to get sick," Olson says.
Unlike manufacturing components, which are often tracked which a high degree of specificity using bar codes, RFID tags and other technology to trace them through production, keeping tabs on edible soft goods can be a tad bit trickier.
After a commercially grown tomato gets picked, it will likely find its way to a sorting facility where it is tossed in with tomatoes from a variety of farms to be sorted by size or color or quality before being sold to a processor. For now, usually "you can track it up to the door of that facility," Plunkett says. "But once it goes in it loses its identity." From that location a tomato might go on to a distributor before being sold to a grocery store or to a processing plant to make paste—and then to a manufacturer that makes spaghetti sauce or canned soup.
A 2009 report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services's inspector general found that 59 percent of companies were unable to provide adequate information about where their supplies were coming from and where they were going—even to comply with current law. And as the peanut butter–based salmonella outbreak earlier that year bore out, tracking those records in a timely fashion is not easy. Many records are kept on paper and companies often rely on shipping documents to trace products up or down the supply chain. In instances like the peanut butter contamination, "a rolling recall that affected literally thousands of products and hundreds of companies," Olson says, "it took months to figure out" the origin and distribution of the contaminated product.