business news in context, analysis with attitude

A special report by Michael Sansolo

WASHINGTON -- There’s little reason to care about exactly where a specific sheep is currently grazing in Norway. Except thanks to RFID chips combined with global tracking devices, Norwegian consumers can care if they wish. Because when they shop for lamb a quick cell phone photo of the product’s data bar will lead them to recipes, information about the sheep and a map of the specific sheep’s grazing pattern.

The convergence of technology, traceability and food safety was widely discussed at the food supply briefing held Wednesday on Capitol Hill by IBM. Featured speakers from industry, consumer groups and government talked about the erosion of consumer confidence due to the food safety problems and the inexact nature of recalls and prevention. Dean Acheson, associate commissioner for food at the FDA, explained that a lack of precision on product source causes food safety recalls that are wider and
more damaging to business and confidence than necessary. Dr. Harold Schmitz, chief science officer at Mars, summed it up simply: “Nobody wins in a food safety situation.”

Other speakers detailed how improved use of technology - like the case in Norway - could help the food system more quickly find a problem, minimize its impact and alert the right suppliers and consumers quicker and more efficiently.

Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), said there is reason to believe that legislation currently in front of the US House could finally produce real change to the tracking system and food safety overall.

IBM is out with a survey, by the way, saying that:

• 55 percent of respondents say they trust manufacturers to appropriately handle food product recalls, down from 64 percent two years ago.

• 72 percent say they trust the store in which they shop to properly handle recalls.

• 60 percent of consumers say they are more concerned about the safety of the food they eat, and 57 percent say that they have stopped purchasing certain foods because of food safety concerns.

• 83 percent of respondents say that they could recall a food product that had been recalled (peanut butter was the big winner/loser in this category), and 74 percent of consumers said that they want more data about products are grown and manufactured.
KC's View:
It is worth noting that as this conference took place in DC, it was reported by the Denver Post that Colorado-based JBS Swift Beef has recalled nearly 21 tons of beef sirloin products for fear it is contaminated with potentially deadly E.coli O157:H7 bacteria.

No illnesses have yet been reported. But the erosion of the nation’s confidence in food safety continues…