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F.ood & H.ealth : & P.olitics Last Updated: Nov 12th, 2006 - 20:38:00

Keeping our food supply safe: Sufficient record-keeping needed from field to table
By Fred Pritzker
Aug 25, 2006, 19:31

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Pritzker Law

We have a huge flaw in our food safety system in this country. On a micro level, it prevents people injured or killed by contaminated food products from identifying the source of their illness. On a macro level, it prevents our society from knowing where our food comes from, how it is produced and handled, and ultimately makes us vulnerable to terrorist attacks on our food supply.

Once a foodborne illness outbreak occurs, regardless of its cause, consumers have a right to know - at a minimum - where the food that sickened them came from. Knowing the source is important for several reasons. First, it helps food regulators to quickly zero in on the source and stop the problem that caused the outbreak in the first place.

Second, it allows food scientists and sanitarians to understand how food safety problems occur and correct and regulate them. Third, it helps consumers make educated choices about what they eat and where it comes from. Fourth, it helps people injured by unsafe food products to hold accountable those who cause them harm.

The problem, and it is a gaping one, is that we do not require food processors and distributors to keep sufficient records to allow consumers and regulators to trace the path of food products from field to table. Thus, we cannot be sure who grew the products, where and how they were produced, how they were shipped, how and by whom they were handled, who distributed them and, sometimes, even where they were sold at retail.

Five years after 9/11, the problem continues. If some terrorist successfully contaminated a fungible food product, there is a good chance that we wouldn't be able to tell where along the chain of distribution that contamination occurred. And without such knowledge, it will be much harder to prevent and detect this horrific situation.

The most recent example of this problem is the E. coli outbreak in Longville, Minnesota. A woman died and several were injured after eating ground beef at a church potluck supper. According to the most recent reports, Minnesota Department of Health inspectors have identified a retailer and distributor that likely sold the ground beef, but the distributor does not have records indicating the source of the ground beef that was shipped to the retailer.

It doesn't take a food scientist to know how foolish and dangerous this lack of record-keeping can be. Don't we, as consumers, have a right to know the source of the food we eat? Shouldn't we have a right to expect that the minute a dangerous food product is identified that its source can be located and inspectors can have the opportunity to inspect those premises?

I am a food safety lawyer. I represent people injured by food products contaminated with deadly pathogens. I know how devastating these illnesses can be and what kind of impact they have on the lives of foodborne illness victims and their families.

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