Sunday, October 2, 2011

GPS evidence: A Solution for real Food Safety?

Since the days of Theodore Roosevelt, over 100 years ago, this country has had one of the safest food distribution systems in the world. However, that wonderful record means nothing to the families of the stricken and dead from recent food contamination outbreaks.

Food distribution used to mean shipments within cities, from local farms, or perhaps nearby states. However, with the increase in international trade, food shipments can come from anywhere in the world, and food processors might add ingredients from many food producers. Food is also handled by more middlemen in the journey from origin point to store.

Photo Courtesy of GPSinsight

Therefore, when an outbreak of contamination happens, tracing ingredients and their sources is much harder. Without being able to trace the sources, it becomes difficult to either warn consumers or remove contaminated food. According to Bloomberg Businessweek, Your Food Has Been Touched by Multitudes ( Congress passed a new law that gives the FDA sweeping powers to regulate or shut down violators, but did not require food producers to track their ingredients any farther up and down the food chain than one up/ one down. In other words, producers only need to know who they bought from and who they sold to, not the food's whole “history.” Any break in this chain can stop an investigation cold. With business bankruptcies on the rise, those breaks can occur anywhere in the chain.

How could GPS evidence help? Well to coin the old phrase: “We have the technology. . .” to make a safer food system. Let's think how food distribution works: Buyers buy food in easily traceable lots (truckloads, containers, pallets or cases) and either combine them with other ingredients or ship them off in other identifiable lots (canned goods, cases of fruit, pallets of bread, etc. ) to the final seller. Once in stores, food is usually tracked according to bar codes, which helps identify what has been sold.

If sellers were required to attach bar codes to each “lot” they sold, be it a truckload or a case, and associate electronically that barcode with a GPS track of the travel that truck had during delivery, investigations into contaminated food would take minutes, and contaminated food could be identifiable, and removed within hours. Each purchaser would get (and keep) the electronic trackmap back to the source; then add its own GPS information when it shipped to the next purchaser. If many foods were combined, all the constituent tracks would be passed along. The store that finally sells to the consumer would have a pedigree of the food from farm to table, and be able to track all the ingredients to its source.

Does this mean each melon needs a bar code? No, but each case or pallet would. There should be sufficient evidence that could track the food back to its source. What about Mom & Pop direct sellers? Direct sellers would be exempt, because the buyer knows who he or she is buying from- the local source.

Wouldn't this be a burden on buyers and sellers? No, not when you consider that outbreaks in recent history threatened entire industries (think “Roma tomatoes”) and were sometimes in error. The expense is surely worth it compared with the lives of innocent consumers, often the very young, who are most susceptible to being poisoned by contaminated foods. This is also cheaper than having hundreds of investigators trying to track down information that may no longer exist, if it ever existed at all. The recent melon lysteria outbreak put all melons under scrutiny for months when only one farms actually produced the problem melons. Tracking would not only not only halt contaminated food shipments, it would show which producers were clearly not contaminated. While tracking can't replace inspectors, it is cheaper than hiring all the inspectors necessary to ensure total food safety.

Would Theodore Roosevelt endorse such a system? I can only believe he'd have one word for it: “Bully!”

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