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Food Safety for the 21st Century

In the wake of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the U.S. government has been monitoring ships and inspecting fish at docks to ensure that seafood contaminated by the spill does not reach consumers. But what about the rest of the food Americans are eating this summer?

Consumers are currently reacting to the recent news of a massive egg recall by the Food and Drug Administration resulting from a Salmonella outbreak. And this comes on the heels of other food recalls this year, including 90,000 pounds of frozen chicken nuggets pulled from store shelves in July, along with additional cases still fresh in the minds of U.S. consumers - from alfalfa sprouts and peanut butter to pet food and refrigerated cookie dough.

It's not just the frequency of food contamination that is troubling; it's the difficulty the U.S. government has in identifying the culprits quickly enough to protect people from products still on supermarket shelves and in consumers' kitchens.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 76 million Americans are sickened each year by food-borne illnesses, leading to the hospitalization of 325,000 people and causing 5,000 deaths. The health-related costs of these illnesses are $152 billion, according to a recent study sponsored by the Produce Safety Project at Georgetown University.

We have a global food supply, but our methods of tracing the source and chain of custody of the food we eat is antiquated. That has to change.

Hiring more inspectors is a good start, but there will never be enough inspectors to solve the food safety challenges our country faces. Technology has advanced to the point where a smarter, safer food supply is possible. For example, we can augment our cadre of inspectors with systems that can remotely monitor food production facilities to make sure they comply with government food safety standards.

Similarly, our food inspection resources could be better allocated using predictive analytics technologies that analyze weather patterns and determine where additional food inspectors might be needed. For example, if heavy flooding is expected in a particular growing area, more inspectors could be sent in to monitor in light of the increased risk of food-borne diseases.

Inexpensive sensors and barcodes can also be put to work to make our food supply safer. Using these tags, Vietnamese seafood producers and their trading partners are now able to track their products from farms to supermarkets. Soon, a similar program will be put in place for a wide range of agricultural exports from Thailand. If other countries are using such technology to ensure the safety of their food exports, can't we do the same for food produced in the U.S?

When Congress returns from its summer recess, it can make quick work of reducing the frequency and impact food borne illnesses. Already, the House has passed legislation that would require food companies to develop safety plans to prevent food contamination, mandate more frequent inspections of food processors and importers, and give the Food and Drug Administration the authority to issue mandatory food recalls.

Now, the Senate needs to pass its version of the bill - the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act. Both bills would compel all parties involved in producing, processing, distributing, or selling food to maintain complete records concerning the origin and distribution history of the foods we eat.

Some food producers say this record-keeping will be expensive and burdensome, but even the smallest food producers I have encountered already maintain detailed records on their animals and crops. The trouble is, that information is either on paper or on computer systems that are difficult to search and impossible to share.

That type of system doesn't work in an age in which food recalls cost businesses tens of millions of dollars annually both from the expense of pulling products off the shelves as well as future costs resulting from reduced consumer confidence in affected brands.

About half of consumers in a recent IBM survey said they would be less willing to purchase a food product again if it was recalled due to contamination. That's a lot of business in the U.S., where the food industry represents 13 percent of GDP.

We cannot prevent all food borne illnesses, but we have to use all the tools that are available - both legislative and technological - to speed the process of uncovering their causes, reduce their effect on public health, and protect our country's food industry.