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Protecting the Food Supply

Greater regulation might be required to protect the food supply, and if the government takes the initiative to encourage the use of RFID technology, it would ease the pain of compliance.
By Mark Roberti
Aug 04, 2008It's not every day in the United States that industry leaders embrace government regulation, so this headline in the July 31 edition of The New York Times caught my eye: "Amid Salmonella Case, Food Industry Seems Set to Back Greater Regulation."

The story read: "As they tally the financial losses from the largest food-borne outbreak of illness in the last decade, produce businesses now show signs of embracing broader regulations for traceability."

It's not difficult to understand why the heads of fresh produce companies feel the need to do something. In early June, when people began falling ill from eating food contaminated with salmonella, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) initially announced the problem was certain types of raw tomatoes. The agency issued a warning against eating those tomatoes, causing growers to lose more than $100 million, according to the United Fresh Produce Association.

Then, in mid-July, the FDA discovered the same strain of salmonella on jalapeño peppers from Mexico, and later reported that it also found the strain on serrano peppers at a farm in that country. The fresh produce industry is concerned about future outbreaks of food-borne illnesses, and about consumer confidence—hence, the openness to regulation.

Companies tend to oppose regulation because it increases the cost of doing business, but the U.S. government could ease the pain of complying with such rules by putting up some initial funding for a track-and-trace system using radio frequency identification technologies. This would be good for the produce industry, as well as for consumers.

The produce industry employs a great deal of reusable plastic containers. The government could purchase several million tags at a discounted price, which could then be placed on these containers. The tags wouldn't last forever, but they would be cost-effective because they would survive a dozen or more trips through the supply chain.

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