Barcodes may be key to our health

Posted April 30, 2009

BarcodeFood[1]When an outbreak of food borne illness from salmonella or E.coli contamination happens, it scares consumers and farmers alike. That’s partly due to the fact that finding the source of the bacteria can take weeks, months, even years.

Spinach, jalapenos, peanuts, pistachios are all foods that share a bad reputation due to outbreaks of bacteria like E.coli and salmonella. But some food safety experts say their problems could be solved by using barcodes.

“This is not rocket science and there are companies in the U.S. who are doing that kind of tracing system today. It’s just not required. Its not mandated,” said Caroline DeWaal, Center for the Science in the Public Interest.

DeWaal says barcodes are used for different farms and manufacturers anyway, so why not connect them from farm to fork?
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“If this barcode had a code that FDA standardized and made recognizable across the industry, the agency could more easily trace these products,” said DeWaal.

Outgoing FDA director David Acheson agrees.

“We get piles of records — it’s pieces of paper, it’s invoices. And we bring them back here and it literally is a paper and pencil exercise. And I think one of the challenges right now that we all have to face is what can we do to make this more automated?” explains David Acheson, FDA.

The answer might be to look to overseas where they’re already doing it.

“Tesco which is the third largest retailer in the world actually has a bullet proof system over in Europe and it’s going to come here,” said Phil Lempert, market analyst.

Lempert says everything the company sells is connected to a computerized barcode system.

“In a matter of seconds you’ll know everything about that product: what truck it was on, who were the names of the employees that were working in that field that day, when it was produced,” said Lempert.

But when a food borne illness breakout occurs, we look to the government for help. Establishing such a barcode tracking system will cost millions if not billions of dollars, something the government would prefer the food industry pay for.

“I would not see the federal government paying for that. The industry needs to step up to the plate and seriously look at what could they do to introduce these systems? Now I don’t think that comment will be popular because it’s going to cost,” said Acheson.

Barcodes may be key to our health

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