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US organics company using tracing system to allay safety concerns

By Jane Byrne , 08-Aug-2008
Last updated on 08-Aug-2008 at 17:25 GMT

An organics company that links growers and food manufacturers has announced it is to integrate a technology that will enable it to track produce, as calls grow for a faster way of identifying the ‘smoking gun’ in outbreaks of foodborne illness.

Texas-based Organic Alliance is a public company that was established four years ago. Its customers are large multi-national food manufactuers.

It claims to be the first organic products company and one of the first produce companies in the world to sign on with the GS1 system of standards, which it says makes traceability possible on a global scale across the supply chain.

GS1 is a global supplier of product identification technology including barcodes Electronic Product Code (EPC) and Radio Frequency Identification tags (RFID).

Origin tracing

While the US organic industry grew 21 per cent to reach $17.7 billion in consumer sales in 2006, Organic Alliance admits that consumers are increasingly concerned about origin and safety due to recalls, in particular the recent fresh produce linked salmonella scare.

“Our new tracing system is pioneering in the industry and a logical extension to our overall strategic positioning on quality; we expect it to further enhance the reputation of organic produce from the perspective of the consumer,” Organic Alliance spokesperson Bill Gallagher told FoodProductionDaily.com.

The company's main products are certified organic tomatoes, onions, garlic and avocados but Gallagher said that 20 per cent of its produce is high quality non-organic produce. He said organic beef and poultry are also proving to be a growth sectors for the company.

Unique identifier

Gallagher said the GS1 system employed will involve each of its suppliers having a crate label with a unique identifier that is linked back to a centrally recorded database, and that all costs will be absorbed by the Organic Alliance rather than the individual member.

He said the system will be beneficial to both farmers and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in that the product labels and technology will expedite tracking and quickly isolate a problem to a specific farm, thus clearing non-contaminated products.

It is very important for our organisation, as representatives of the organic sector, to be able to source origin. The GS1 tracing system will enable us to track our products back to the specific farmer and even down to the row if needed during any FDA recalls,” said Gallagher.

Federal probe criticised

The FDA handling of the salmonella outbreak that has sickened 1,300 people has been criticized by US politicians, public interest groups and industry representatives, with all groups urging the need for faster tracking of tainted products.

The scare, which has cost the produce industry an estimated $200m, was initially linked to fresh tomatoes by the food safety regulator; however, its subsequent investigations connected the outbreak to irrigation water and peppers on a farm in Mexico.

In two days of congressional hearings into the outbreak last month, US lawmakers said that the federal investigation should only have taken hours or days, with the House Energy and Commerce Committee concluding that the federal investigators focused on tomatoes too early.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) and the Consumer Federation of America (CFA) recently wrote to the FDA urging emergency regulations requiring traceability of fresh produce to allow health officials to react more quickly when a pathogen-related outbreak occurs.

FDA chief, Dr David Acheson, said the agency plans to convene a panel of advisers to review its salmonella inquiry.

Quality assurance

David Hughes, Emeritus professor of food processing, Imperial College London, said the outbreak was unlikely to shift consumption in the long term, but it would make people a lot more aware of the source of origin.

He said it also highlights the need for the food industry to have high integrity supply chains and suppliers that have processes in place for quality assurance.

“Consumers don’t spend their days worrying about food safety because they assume that is has been taken care of. If they find out it hasn’t been taken care of they penalize you the only way they know how, and that is not to buy your product,” said Hughes.

Consumer concerns

An Associated Press-Ipsos poll said that nearly half of consumers have changed their eating and buying habits in the past six months because they're afraid they could become ill from eating contaminated food.

Forty six percent said they avoided buying foods they would normally buy because of warnings about the safety of particular types of food and 45 per cent said they were less likely to eat fresh tomatoes.

The poll results also showed that 86 per cent said produce should be labelled so it can be tracked through each stage from processors back to the farm, an issue which has divided the industry. And 80 per cent supported establishing stricter federal safety standards for fresh produce.