ChewsWise Blog

ChewsWise Blog

Tracking Spinach in Space

The conventional produce industry is taking a number of steps to restore confidence after the e. coli outbreak last year, including (finally!) tracking produce from the field.

According to this Wall Street Journal story (subscription required)

Dole Food Co., the world's largest producer of fresh vegetables, recently started using radio-frequency identification tags to track leafy greens as they move from fields to trucks and through processing facilities. The system will allow Dole, whose bagged spinach was implicated in the September E. coli outbreak that killed three people and sickened more than 200, to trace contaminated produce not only to a particular farm, but also to a specific part of a field, says Eric Schwartz, president of Dole fresh vegetables.

At the same time, Western Growers, whose members grow, pack and ship half of the nation's fresh produce, is helping develop a global-positioning system enabling growers to track their goods through the supply chain. In addition, many big produce buyers are spelling out how growers should monitor their farms for possible sources of contamination, including wild hogs and deer, flooding and polluted irrigation water -- and insisting on guarantees that the directions are followed.

Here's why the industry's taking such steps.

"Because of the problem with record keeping, we are not able to trace back to a single location," says Jack Guzewich, director of emergency coordination and response at the Food and Drug Administration's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. "We end up with multiple locations, multiple farms. And we have to visit them all."

In the organic food industry, at least, tracking back to the field has been required since regulations took effect in 2002.

Meanwhile, the FDA issued non-binding guidelines on the produce industry to address the e. coli outbreaks.  The Times reported Tuesday:

The F.D.A. is suggesting that the fresh-cut produce industry constantly monitor and control vulnerable places in the production cycle where the bacteria are likely to form.

The guidelines also call for record keeping for recalls and covers personal health and hygiene of workers and sanitation operations.

As the Times noted, the FDA guidelines - which lack any teeth - are lagging behind what the industry is already doing.