And as more food products integrate more ingredients—obtained from more places throughout the the globe—the source of a sickness can be even harder to trace. In a January 2010 recall contamination in sausages turned out to be not from the meat but from the pepper that was used as seasoning. And in the 2007 chicken and turkey potpie recall the origin of the contamination, which was originally thought to be the turkey (thus allowing the USDA to recall the meat-based product), was unknown.
The new law will require companies to move from the so-called "one-up, one-down traceability"—that is, records of whom they receive products from and to whom they ship them—to a more comprehensive account of their supply and distribution chains. Getting to that level will likely take some work. Modernizing this massive system has "got to be one of the most difficult—and one of the areas where the most work needs to be done," Plunkett says.
Some companies have hired third-party tracking companies that will check the records of providers down the supply chain—from farm to factory. Although the outside assistance comes at a price, Plunkett says that many companies recognize that it will help them down the line. "For the consumer you get that extra measure of quality" if a product comes from a company that is tracking its products well, he notes. And for the company, "you will also have a response when the FDA comes to your door."
Upfront costs can also save big bucks down the road, Plunkett explains. Foodborne illnesses are estimated to cost some $152 billion in health care costs yearly—and recalling loads of food can mean substantial costs and income loss for companies. So, he says, "you might want to think about the science, because failure in the field is huge amounts of money."
But even with private tracking services becoming more widespread—and even more so if the bill is signed into law—the system is still far from transparent. Many tracking companies use proprietary systems, making them less likely to be shared—and because they are being implemented piecemeal, the systems often cannot talk to each other.
Safe for science
Should the bill—or a similar one—become law by the end of the year, many of the provisions will not take effect January 1. But Olson suggests that most will be implemented within a couple years. And he is just fine with delays when needed. "We've been waiting 70-plus years for this," he says, "so we are not encouraging the FDA to rush forward without the science behind them."
Most of the science is already there: "We know certain bugs make people sick; we know that certain foods are more likely to make people sick," Olson says. "Some of the most extreme problems can be identified and dealt with."
With all of the new science and knowledge will come new regulatory power for the FDA. But rather than regulate people's backyard gardens, as some critics have claimed, the law will give the FDA some basic authorities that many people assume it already had, such as mandating recalls of food shown to be contaminated. "You would think that there is recalling authority," Olson says. But "that is what comes from a law that is 72 years old."