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Centralized Food Data Reporting is Lacking

The United States has one of the safest food supplies. But if problems existed with food supplies, would anyone know before problems surfaced?

Perhaps not, given the lack of centralized data on some food safety issues. For example, food security experts say that although adulteration occurs somewhere in the food chain an estimated one to ten times a day, the government doesn’t gather this information.

That’s a problem, says Robert Norton, a food security expert and professor at Auburn University.

Collecting information on incidents could help to assess trends and the need for additional safety procedures.

The food sector reports information to regulatory agencies, but whereas other industries report to one or two agencies, food businesses are governed by twelve or thirteen, notes Tim Hammonds, president of the Food Marketing Institute. These are as wide-ranging as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Environmental Protection Agency, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Hammonds, who also helped form the Food and Agriculture Information Sharing and Analysis Center (ISAC), says that the ISAC covers such a broad spectrum of the industry that members are reluctant to share information with members, since they may have competing interests. For instance, if a food supplier reports a suspicion, even if it turns out to be unfounded, retail customers have panicked and cut off purchases from the supplier.

The ISAC reconstituted itself after those incidents—when the Department of Homeland Security was created—but the memory of being “burned” is still fresh, he says: “Corporations have a long-term memory.”

Another concern, adds Norton, is that even a hint of adulteration can taint a brand’s reputation. For example, Wendy’s lost millions of dollars’ worth of business after an allegation that a severed finger was found in a cup of its chili, even though the claim was quickly proven to be a hoax.

Most incidents are minor, says Norton, and employees are almost always responsible for the contamination. As a result, businesses tend to view it as an internal matter. “The quickest thing to do is to fire the employee,” he says.

The USDA and the Department of Health and Human Services have just launched a joint program to raise food security awareness among regulators, school food authorities, and nutrition-assistance program personnel. Training via classroom, the FDA Web site, or a CD-ROM is free. This month, courses are being held in Chicago and Minneapolis, and courses in other cities will continue at least through September.

“It’s good that they’re standardizing training,” says Norton