Food Safety And Modernization Act. Neither safe nor modern?

Food Safety And Modernization Act. Neither safe nor modern?

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The following is a transcript of my comments at the Nov 2nd 2011 Stakeholders Meeting set up by The Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) at the behest of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in compliance with Section 204 of the Food Safety and Modernization Act (FSMA). The current programs only require documentation of the container itself. They are incapable of tracking the goods inside the container. This provides a significant risk to consumers. These comments address that issue. I would be very interested in feedback from this community!

I am Iain Green, Director of Business Development with Picarro, Inc., headquartered in Santa Clara, California. We make the instruments that tell you if the contents of a container actually come from where the label says they came from. So, is the honey actually from Argentina; is the cocoa actually from Ghana; is the sugar from Iowa or is the beef from Montana.

We do that using a technique called Cavity Ring-Down Spectroscopy and we analyze the ratios of certain so-called stable isotopes which are baked into the molecules of plants during photosynthesis and are then passed through the food chain as a signature. The test is fast and inexpensive. But, it only came to the fore after the text for this legislation was drafted and well down the legislative process.

There is demand for this information in large and small food companies, both in the US and abroad and in customs and excise houses worldwide. It’s the best way to tell if the goods inside a container are masquerading as something they aren’t. Its how you can spot an illegitimate goods that’s been marked with barcodes and paperwork doctored to gain passage in an otherwise legitimate supply chain. The value for purchasers in supply chains is clear. You are more assured of the right product, the right quality and more secure brand image through greater security.

Counterfeit materials exist to the tune of 50 billion dollars per year. We are running food stuffs bought off-the-shelf in our labs.  In recent weeks we have found fake olive oil that that arrived in California from Italy unchallenged. We have found squalane, a moisturizer, labeled as derived from olive oil that actually came from shark livers. It’s shocking that a company like us can go to a supermarket or an on-line store and pick foods and ingredients at random from the millions available and come up with fraudulent material. What are the odds? Clearly quite high. And, it’s not the fraud that really matters. It’s the inherent lack of safety. Almost any chemical can be riding along with the fraudulent goods. Criminals rarely concern themselves with the safety of added pesticides, drugs or raw chemicals such as ethylene glycol, melamine.

Although not being party to the pilot program per-se as the program will not be running samples, we have the opportunity to submit information as part of the introduction to additional technologies.

In the interim, and in answer to the Stakeholder Input Requested Question 1, we suggest specific high risk major food commodities for which the paper and electronic transaction process should be thoroughly examined. For example, are current traceability methods catching fraudulent honey? A recent report noted that an estimated 1/3rd of the honey in US supply chain was masquerading as something it wasn’t due to evasion of tariffs or other smuggling inventions1. Such criminal activity hides serious health risks as honey can be laden with antibiotics or other chemicals which can cause serious health issues or death.  If you don’t know where it’s from, how will you trace it back?

Remember the recent Ivory Coast civil war? An embargo was placed on cocoa from that country. During that season, Ghanaian cocoa exports rose by an estimated 45%.  Reportedly, that was not a bumper crop2, but the result of a concerted smuggling operation. However, how many of your quality management systems recorded that cocoa as being of Ivory Coast origin? And, if not, how does trace back work in this scenario?

A third crop to track is palm oil.  There has been a sustained drive to ban palm oil exports from companies accused of illegal logging3. Are those plantations still harvesting crops?  Where is it going? Probably into the same supply chains as always, there is no way to tell. Is it part of your supply chain?

If food safety initiatives are to truly succeed, they should answer a basic question – is the traceability system truly representing the goods in the container? Asked another way - can the traceability spot an illegitimate goods masquerading as a legitimate one?  If not, we are missing a major risk in food safety.

1. Asian Honey, Banned in Europe, Is Flooding U.S. Grocery Shelves, Food Safety News, Aug 15th, 2011

2.  Smuggling pads Ghana's record cocoa harvest, Reuters, Tue May 10, 2011

3. The campaign against palm oil. The other oil spill. The Economist, Jun 24th 2010