14 June, 2008 - Traceability is Your Protection

During the past several days we have had yet another lesson on how vulnerable agriculture and agricultural producers are to situations that are beyond their control. I am talking about the salmonella outbreak that hit the tomato industry.

Tomato growers in Florida and other tomato-producing states went to bed in the evening knowing that tomorrow would bring another day of harvesting and shipping tomatoes. They woke up the next morning to suddenly discover that people were not going to eat what they were producing....because of a salmonella outbreak affecting people in over two dozen states, and causing at least one death. Health officials said tomatoes were the source.

Reaction was immediate...consumers turned away from tomatoes at the produce counter; restaurants, McDonald’s and other fast food chains said “we’ll take tomatoes off all items on our menu” because consumers were concerned, something we can all understand. So once again we get another hard lesson on how an agricultural industry can be turned upside down overnight.

But that takes me back to a point you’ve heard me make before. In agriculture, we need to improve “traceability” because while it took days to finally trace down the source of the salmonella, the tomato industry came to a halt. Tomatoes that were ripe and ready for picking stayed in the fields and rotted. We need “traceability” because as consumers demand better food inspection and control, we probably will find more situations that will have the impact of the tomato salmonella outbreak on agricultural producers. You perhaps heard the comment from one official that we need to have a health inspector in every field of produce; we all know consumers would never pay the bill for that.

Whether it’s tomatoes, livestock or any other agricultural commodity, we must do a better job of finding the source quickly so the problem can be corrected without shutting down the entire industry for days. I have strongly supported the National Animal ID program and many of you have let me know (in strong language) that I am wrong. I understand your reasons for resisting the program, but I think this latest incident overrides those objections.

Agricultural producers simply can’t afford the cost of bringing an entire industry to a halt while we frantically search to find the source of the outbreak. It is a lesson already learned by spinach, and now, tomato producers. If your commodity is the next one to face a health threat, wouldn’t you want to find the source quickly so consumers could be reassured and your industry spared a financial melt-down? I think I know your answer and that’s why we must move quickly to improve traceability for the benefit of both consumers and producers.

My thoughts on Samuelson Sez.