AUSTIN, Texas – Panelists at the Center for Produce Safety Symposium described better traceback as essential to containing foodborne illness outbreaks and urged companies to invest in that infrastructure.

The somber and frank discussion, moderated by Produce Marketing Association CEO Cathy Burns, started with a review of the recent spate of E. coli outbreaks linked to romaine lettuce.

“The low point as it relates to the media, for me, was actually when we made Saturday Night Live,” Burns said. “And typically when something in the news crosses over to satire, and especially late-night TV, that’s when you know you’re in crisis mode, honestly.”

The panel included Dave Corsi, vice president of produce for Wegmans and CPS chairman; Mike Robach, CEO of The Robach Group and former vice president of food safety for Cargill; Mike Taylor, former deputy commissioner for foods at the Food and Drug Administration and board member at STOP Foodborne Illness; and Tim York, CEO of Markon Cooperative.

Burns asked each member of the group to share his biggest takeaway from the romaine debacle.

“Despite the challenges we’ve been through – sick consumers, dead consumers, costs to the grower-shipper side, the buy side, anywhere in between, consumers themselves – there is still a reluctance to change, reluctance to do what needs to be done to effectively put in, for example, a traceback system,” York said. “And you know as I do the pushback we’ve had from folks about traceback.

“It’s expensive,” York said. “One of my board members was, when we talked about this at our board meeting just last month, said the $5 million worth of romaine we threw away is a drop in the bucket of what it will cost us on an annual basis to have a traceback system like we’ve talked about.”

York noted that he understands the resistance because no one wants to make a business less competitive – but on the other hand, changes have to be made.

Taylor and York agreed that many companies will not invest in traceability unless buyers demand it.

Corsi indicated that an effort to bring major retailers together on food safety requirements is underway. The coalition is not official yet, he cautioned, but he expressed confidence that the group is prioritizing three areas: strengthening prevention, investing in traceability, and collaborating with regulators.

Robach, who previously worked for Cargill, offered suggestions for creating a framework to help federal agencies limit future outbreaks and the resulting damage.

“By the time you’ve got 10 people, 20 people, 30 people ill, it’s too late,” Robach said. “It’s out of control … When I was at Cargill, we did a ground beef recall in the Northeast based on two illnesses, and we got a call very early from CDC when those two illnesses appeared, and we worked with them.

“We did a recall within a day or two and got that product off the market, so it can be done, but it takes communication and it also takes building a trust,” Robach said.

Taylor said developing that kind of relationship will require an investment of time and energy by the industry. It’s a necessary undertaking, however, if the industry expects to be consulted in a crisis.

“There has to be an existing mechanism,” Taylor said. “There may have to be confidentiality agreements in place and processes so that FDA can share information in real time with people who can actually help. That’s going to require sustained effort as well.”

Along with emphasizing traceability, York noted that companies need to hire the right people.

“Doing a great job in some other part of the business doesn’t quality you to be a food safety manager,” York said.

Implementing traceability systems and hiring food safety professionals will be costly, but the panelists argued that companies have no choice.

“You have to look at food safety as an investment, not as a cost, and that’s the bottom line, because if you continue to do what you’re doing, you won’t have an industry,” Robach said. “It’ll be gone. People will just totally lose confidence and they’ll look at other sources of their fruits and vegetables.”

 

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