Highly-publicized incidents of food-borne illness in the United States in recent years have revealed that in spite of established industry practices for safely packaging food, failures do occur, and food products sometimes become contaminated.

The subject is addressed extensively in a new report on “traceability” published by the Center for Agricultural Business. The CAB is a research facility overseen by the California Agricultural Technology Institute at California State University, Fresno.

In 2006, three people died, more than 100 were hospitalized and 200 more estimated sickened in just one case of contaminated food, which turned out to be packaged spinach tainted with E. coli bacteria. After extensive investigation, researchers traced the spinach, which had been sold all over the country, to production areas in the central coast region of California.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that food borne diseases cause approximately 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations, and 5,000 deaths in the United States each year. For this reason and others, there is a clear need to improve methods for tracking production and processing of food products.

According to Mechel Paggi, CAB director and one of the publication’s authors, traceability is “the accurate generation and recording of a product’s history, including all processes that transport or transform it.”

This involves tracking not only routine movement like packing, but the mixing of lots, re-palletizing of cases, and even combining products in food preparation, Paggi noted.

“Traceability systems must be able to provide a clear record of an agricultural product, not only during production and packing, but in distribution as well.”

The title of the new report is “Traceability for Food Marketing and Safety.” Its purpose is to provide an overview of the current state of traceability systems in the specialty crop industry and to document to the extent possible the cost and potential benefits to California producers from adoption of these systems.

Unfortunately for some in the food production industry, a key reason for a thorough traceability system is that it provides information needed to assess liability in cases of contaminated products. Actually, sources referenced in the report indicate that the number of liability claims that go to court over food-borne illness is very small compared to the overall number of cases. However, publicity and lawsuits over individual cases can severely damage an entire industry and can devastate a single company that is found to have made a mistake.

With that reality acknowledged, the benefits of traceability in food production systems are many and will help the industry in general, even though it raises the price of product, Paggi noted. One benefit is improved ability to identify and recall a product when a food safety problem is discovered. Not only does this help to correct problems that have occurred, it helps to protect and maintain the integrity of the industry as a whole when it can identify and correct problem areas.

Other benefits include the ability to guarantee product origin when that information is important to the consumer; improvement in overall supply management; and ability to differentiate between domestically and foreign supplied products.

Since traceability is a still growing industry in its own right, work needs to be done in applying it to the various facets of the food production, processing and distribution, Paggi said. The new report is aimed primarily at economists and consultants who work in developing and testing systems. It includes several sections, including one of theoretical underpinnings and another featuring the “California Experience.”

For a copy of the publication, contact CAB at 559.278.4405 or visit the CAB Website at http://cati.csufresno.edu/cab.

(Copy by Steve Olson of the California Agricultural Technology Institute at Fresno State.)