FDA plans food-tracking system

Goal is to trace source of criminally contaminated food, foodborne illnesses

U.S. Food and Drug Administration's Bioterrorism Act

In an effort to speed the response to possible intentional food contamination, the Food and Drug Administration this month issued a request for information to develop a system to identify and track food.

The Food Source Identification and Tracking System would allow FDA officials to know where food has been and where it's going as it travels from ports, factories or distributors within the United States.

The development of the system is one of several provisions mandated by last year's Bioterrorism Act.

"One of our intentions is the system will help in complying with the one-step-back and one-step-forward provisions of the bioterrorism bill," said Morris Potter, lead scientist for epidemiology at the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition who will work directly with the contractors who develop the system.

In the event of a foodborne illness or criminal food contamination, FDA officials would be able to quickly trace the source. Currently, officials can access food companies' invoices and records, a process that can be slow and unreliable.

"Companies make records available to us, but sometimes that's a huge pile of invoices, and we have to reconstruct them," Potter said. The system "would speed that up. They'd be able to punch a button and get a printout."

Potter cautioned that although the system's database would store transaction information, officials aren't interested in the transactions unless there is an event.

For a food-tracking system based on bioterrorism concerns to work, there must be other incentives and purposes for the system, said Dr. Neville Clarke, director of the Institute for Countermeasures against Agricultural Bioterrorism at Texas A&M University. For example, food manufacturers should have an economic incentive to identify where a product came from.

"None of the systems for terrorism is going to last forever unless the system has other uses," Clarke said. "The catch [phrase] is 'dual purpose.' That system has to be useful for normal events or else it won't be kept up and it won't be used."

Similar food-tracking systems already exist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Agriculture Department. Officials said each system serves a different purpose.

"It sounds to me like the different systems are done by different people who are collecting different information," said Robert Tauxe, chief of CDC's foodborne and diarrheal diseases branch. The FDA's system "is missing. It's not something that's being done now."

However, Tauxe did question whether the various systems could be consolidated instead. A section in the fiscal 2004 budget noted that information technology systems for public health monitoring are subject to review for consolidation.

One Alberta, Canada-based company has already developed a food-tracking system used to follow beef products. Viewtrak Technologies Inc.'s system collects information so companies can comply with regulations and ensure the marketing value of the product, such as organic beef.

The system can be adopted for any type of food product. Food is commonly tracked using bar code technology or a radio frequency microchip on the packaging, said Jake Burlet, Viewtrak's president and chief executive officer.

Before the FDA hires vendors to create a new food-tracking system, Burlet suggested that FDA officials or the vendors consider products that have already been created. "It has already been done," he said, referring to Viewtrak's system.

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Watching what you eat

The Food and Drug Administration's proposed system to identify and track food sources resembles others that are already in place:

* FoodNet, the foodborne diseases active surveillance network, is part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's emerging infections program in partnership with the Agriculture Department, the FDA and 10 states. The system provides a network for monitoring and responding to foodborne diseases and identifying the sources.

* PulseNet, the national molecular subtyping network for foodborne disease surveillance, is CDC's network of laboratories that fingerprints bacteria in foodborne diseases. The database allows for early recognition and rapid investigation of outbreaks.

* ELexnet, the electronic laboratory exchange network developed by the FDA, is a network of critical food-testing data from federal, state and local labs. It facilitates early identification and rapid containment of potentially hazardous foods.

* The Automated Import Information System is used by inspectors for the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service at ports of entry to track imported meat and poultry.

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