October 1, 2006 - Traceability, It Is Important

The recent e.coli - spinach situation raises several concerns. First of all, of course, the concern over human health and the tragic loss of life. Secondly, the concern over the economic loss for people who have put their life’s work into producing top quality, safe produce; then the issue of how vulnerable we are to bio-terrorism and finally the need for traceability, the ability to trace our food all the way back to it’s source.

The bio-terrorism issue is certainly there. Security experts have said, “Terrorists don’t need to explode a bomb in the United States; all they need do is bring a vial of foot-and-mouth disease or some other contagious virus to contaminate our food supply and we’ll be brought to our knees.”

As we look at the issues, and particularly traceability, we must focus on the National Animal ID Program. That always sparks an emotional debate, particularly with those people who don’t like the idea of ‘big brother’ or having to do more bureaucratic paper work. Yet I am convinced the food industry and consumers are going to demand traceability, whether it be produce, meat, milk or eggs. And in the competitive global market, our foreign customers are going to demand it.

In the spinach situation, it would have been extremely beneficial to be able to immediately go to the database and find the source of the contaminated produce so we could stop sales from the infected source, but allow sales to continue from areas that proved to be free of e.coli. That would have been good for consumers; it certainly would have been good for producers. That is why, when we look at animal identification, we must look beyond the producer skepticism of government officials and bureaucrats and realize the long-term benefits for all of us. Like it or not, we live in a different world today, and traceability becomes important; to our health as well as our war on terrorism.

Traceability is not something new; I know producers who are under contract to provide ingredients for companies who produce baby food. They are required to keep detailed records of everything put on every acre of carrots or beans so in the event of a recall, the company can immediately go right to the acre and find the source of the problem. In animal agriculture, the day is rapidly approaching when packing companies and their customers like McDonald’s and Burger King will not buy meat animals from producers who cannot guarantee traceability.

So, let’s get over it. Let’s find a way to get it done, ideally, on a voluntary basis with the cost to be shared from the producer all the way to the consumer. Let’s not ignore the lesson to be learned from the spinach situation.

My thoughts on Samuelson Sez.