Despite the dedicated efforts of food safety officials across the country, our capacity to trace tainted products is seriously limited. Poor record keeping and inadequate information about food sources, ingredients or distribution—particularly at the retail level—make tracing a cumbersome process and make recalls less effective.
With an effective tracing system, when an outbreak occurred—involving ground beef for example—the product that caused the outbreak would be quickly identified as would the retail stores where consumers purchased the product. The store would have the appropriate records that show which processing establishment produced the beef used in the ground product. And then, we could perform traceback and traceforward investigations.
By doing so, we could make consumers aware of what contaminated product to avoid or discard, and therefore control the outbreak. At the same time, our assessment of the establishment that produced the contaminated product could detect if there's a larger problem at the plant and whether this is a systemic problem and not just a local issue.
However, today, we often don't have all the information we need to protect public health. For example, in 2008, during an E. coli O157:H7 illness investigation in Kentucky, FSIS and our state partners found a retail firm to be a common source of ground beef eaten by those who got sick.
The retailer acknowledged it produced several beef grinds, but didn't maintain grinding logs. The retailer used possibly six to nine sources of meat in producing the grinds.
As a result, FSIS was unable to trace the products back to the source. If we had been able to identify the source or sources, we could have determined if other contaminated meat remained in commerce.
Doing so would have prevented other consumers from getting sick, enabled us to determine whether plants were still producing contaminated product, and allowed us to verify if corrective actions were working.
Clearly, reform is needed at the retail level where in many cases the traceback trail ends, but where it really should begin.
Many retailers don't keep records, or the records that they do keep are inadequate. Many retailers are small businesses with small staffs, so it is easy to understand why record keeping isn't a high priority. For some it could even be considered a burden.
So there clearly are challenges before us.
It should be said, however, that many retailers do a good job in maintaining records and consider it an important part of doing business. Safeway, for example, has made improvements in its grinding records after experiencing a number of recalls.