Investigators for the Health and Human Services inspector general's office conducted a test of the tracing system. The result: they were only able to follow five out of 40 foods all the way through the supply chain.
The ability to trace food is a critical part of investigations into outbreaks of food-borne illness and would be crucial in a bioterrorism attack. Food companies are required by federal law to keep records that would allow investigators to follow suspect foods one step back and one step forward in the supply chain.
But the inspector general's investigation found that the records many companies keep are not detailed enough. And one-quarter of the company managers were totally unaware of the record keeping requirements.
"The food safety regulatory structure lacks an adequate traceability system," said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., who requested the investigation. "Traceability is a critical tool in our ability to identify the source of a food-borne illness outbreak."
In the past, the food industry successfully lobbied against efforts to impose electronic record keeping and other requirements that may improve tracing. But the issue is sure to be revisited this year. President Barack Obama has launched a review of the government's fragmented food safety system. Several bills have been introduced on Capitol Hill.
"Trace-back will be a critical part of food safety reform in this Congress," DeLauro said.
In the test, government investigators bought 40 food items, including bottled water, eggs, oatmeal, tomatoes, fruit juice and yogurt. They then attempted to trace the items back from the retailer to the source.
They were only able to fully trace 12.5 percent of the items.
For 31 of the 40, investigators said they were able to identify the facilities that most likely handled the products.
And in the case of four items — 10 percent of the total — investigators were unable to identify the facilities that handled them.
Problems with tracing foods drew attention last summer after investigators from the Food and Drug Administration struggled for weeks to identify the cause of a salmonella outbreak initially blamed on tomatoes. No contaminated tomatoes were found, but the outbreak strain eventually was discovered in hot peppers from Mexico.
The inspector general's report said most facilities do not keep records with specific lot numbers that would facilitate the tracing of foods.
"For example, for one product — a bag of flour — the storage facility did not know the exact farms that contributed to the product and, therefore, had to give us information about every farm that provided wheat during the previous harvest season," the report said.
The report said 70 out 118 food facilities in the traceback test did not meet the FDA's record keeping requirements for information about suppliers, shippers and customers.
"In some cases, managers had to look through large numbers of records — some of them paper based — for contact information," the report said.
The inspector general recommended that the FDA consider seeking stronger legal powers to improve the tracing of food. The FDA said it was reviewing the recommendations.
An examination by The Associated Press last summer found that the food industry pressured the Bush administration to limit the paperwork that companies have to keep to help trace food. It was after the Sept. 11 attacks, and Congress was considering bioterrorism legislation. The bill that ultimately passed included the requirement that companies be able to trace foods one step forward and one step back in the supply chain.
The Bush White House killed a plan to require the industry to maintain electronic records. Companies complained the proposals would cost too much and could disrupt the availability of fresh produce.