State launches food-tracking system

by Carolyn Lucas
Stephens Media

Published: Monday, October 27, 2008 9:29 AM HST

When the Food and Drug Administration warned consumers nationwide in June to not eat three popular types of tomatoes because of a salmonellosis outbreak, restaurants, distributors and grocery stores were forced to throw away hundreds of tomatoes by the crate at an estimated cost of $100 million to $250 million.

Later, the FDA was less sure about the source of the outbreak in 42 states, adding raw jalapeno and serrano peppers as suspects. Still concern spread and the tomato industry, under the heaviest suspicion, suffered, including in Hawaii, a state not associated with this outbreak.

Could this have been avoided? Absolutely, if the suspicious produce had been identifiable, traceable and containable, said John Ryan, Quality Assurance Division administrator for the Hawaii Department of Agriculture.

The state agency has launched a pilot project, expected to cost about $1.6 million over a three-year period, that uses Radio Frequency Identification Devices, or RFIDs, to track local food “from farm to fork.” A $450,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Defense was given to start the program, which is voluntary and free, said Susan Matsushima, program manager of the Economic Development Alliance of Hawaii.

Hawaii farmers are slow in embracing the voluntary food safety guidelines now being adopted, sought after and even required by a growing number of produce purchasers, such as wholesalers, grocers and supermarkets. Only 24 farmers statewide have undergone an agricultural audit and certified for “good agricultural practices,” or GAP. It seems the word “audit” deters people, Matsushima said. Nevertheless GAP certification is encouraged. Officials called the program helpful, realize that most farms will be on the edge of compliance and maintained its hope of having at least 100 local operations certified in the next year.

Prior to participation in the RFID system, farms must undergo a risk assessment, consisting of a visual walk-through inspection with a Quality Assurance certification auditor who is looking for GAP, as well as a collection of water and produce samples for laboratory analysis. Samples must be free of harmful biological and chemical contaminants, Ryan said.

The Department of Agriculture is looking for cheaper and faster ways to analyze samples. It is working with the University of Hawaii in developing a portable bio-sensor that can test for contaminants, such as E. coli and salmonella. Currently testing takes at least 24 to 48 hours for water samples and up to two months for soil samples, Ryan said.

Farmers, distributors, processors, retailers and restaurants are assigned a state identification number. Boxes or pallets of produce are tagged with labels, each possessing microchips with paper-thin antennas that emit radio waves when scanned, Ryan said.

Food is traced as it moves through the supply chain. Automatically entered into an online database is the product identity, time and the location where its label was scanned by handheld or fixed RFID readers, costing between $2,700 and $4,000. However, the growers with Internet-capable computers can manually log when a crop was planted, harvested, the pesticides used and left the farm, as well as other information. Besides the government, all system members will be able to see in real time where produce went, including the cooler. Eventually the technology will be able to track temperature and humidity information to determine if products were transported and stored under appropriate conditions, as well as make alerts, Ryan said.

The RFID system improves traceability and consumer safety by enabling growers and government officials to quickly cite the origin of a food product in question. It also allows for expeditious inspections and avoidance of unnecessary suspects in such investigations, Ryan said.

If a farm has passed the risk assessment and is satisfactorily participating in the traceability, the operation can request for a full certification audit, conducted by certified personnel from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, PRIMUS or the state Quality Assurance Division. Investigator record findings on an extensive checklist, which is submitted to the state for approval. Those accepted will be able to use their certification as a tool to increase or improve marketability. The goal is to have all of the state’s 5,000 farms, big and small, using the system, Ryan said.

In the event of another food recall or regional disaster, Hawaii must be prepared to protect the health of its citizens and the integrity of its agricultural supply chain. While the “buy local” movement is taking off, the state is still highly dependent on imported food and has less than a 7-day supply of food in stores at any given time. Following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, barges were not allowed to come into Honolulu for 15 days because of security reasons and, when the produce the ship carried finally arrived, most of it was rotten or inedible, Matsushima said.

At an informational meeting Thursday, two residents criticized the Department of Agriculture for coordinating and developing this pilot program. Instead they claimed the state agency should be expanding local markets, education the public about the importance of buying local, stocking store shelves with products that are not from overseas, encouraging more people to do branding, preventing the commingling of local products with their mainland and overseas counterparts, focusing on the Country of Origin Labeling, or COOL, mandate, which took effect Sept. 30, and hiring more inspectors.

The Quality Assurance Division’s main priority is enforcing compliance. Instead of food safety, the FDA has spent most of its funds in grading and appearing over the past 100 years. The two FDA-paid, COOL-certified inspectors currently investigate about 10 agricultural segments a day, Ryan said.

“We can’t enforce safety or quality,” he said. “That has to come from the people.”

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