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Fixing our food

The best way to protect consumers and producers is a system that will track what we eat.

June 14, 2008

Salmonella-contaminated tomatoes -- the latest evidence that all is not well with our food -- have not only sickened at least 228 people but unnecessarily tainted the reputation of an entire agricultural sector. As consumers recoil from all tomatoes, and restaurants pull them off the menu, perfectly good produce is unsalable. That includes tomatoes grown here in California, whose farms have been exonerated.

To some extent, this is simple panic. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced that cherry and grape tomatoes and those with the vine still attached are not implicated, but people are so frightened that they don't hear much beyond the words "tomato" and "warning."

But consumers also shun tomatoes because they can't get all the information they need to make safe choices. And that is the failure of the FDA and the industry to implement systems to track food from farm to grocery bag.

FDA investigators believe the bad tomatoes came from either Mexico or central Florida. They still have not located the trouble spot. Even if they had, it would not clear up consumers' questions. What good is it to consumers to know that California's tomatoes are in the clear? Unless they shop at a farmer's market, they have little way of learning where their fresh produce comes from.

We all have to peel those annoying stickers off most of our fresh produce before eating it. What if those stickers gave stores and consumers useful bar-coded information about the origins of their food? In the event of food poisoning, inspectors could determine almost immediately what producer was at fault and pull the bad food from the market, saving people from suffering -- and also saving the harvests of innocent growers.

In an interview with The Times' editorial board this week, FDA Commissioner Andrew C. von Eschenbach pointed to McCormick & Co., which buys most of its spices in India, as a company that already is tracking ingredients, using a low-tech labeling system on plastic bags that can trace peppers, for instance, back to their many producers. The simplicity and economy of the system allows it to be used even by a poor farmer tilling an acre of land.

It's up to Congress to provide the FDA with the funding for more inspection and safety technology. But a Government Accountability Office report released Thursday also blamed Von Eschenbach for failing to move on with the food protection plan he put forth in November 2007. Food poisoning acts quickly, and so must the federal government.

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