Federal food safety agencies held a two-day public meeting this week to discuss what kind of food traceability policies should be pursued to increase the speed and accuracy of foodborne illness and recall investigations.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), the two bodies that share jurisdiction over the food supply, heard input from consumer advocates, the food industry, public health experts, and companies offering high-tech traceability solutions.

Though many different opinions were presented on tracing food from farm-to-fork, there was one thing everyone agreed on: we need to be better at it.

“Despite dedicated efforts, our capacity to trace tainted product is seriously limited,” Jerold Mande, deputy under secretary of food safety at USDA told the audience. “We often don’t have all the information we need to protect public health.”

Mike Taylor, food safety guru, and advisor to FDA Commissioner Dr. Margaret Hamburg, echoed similar sentiments. “The benefits, I think, are clear,” said Taylor, who outlined several hurdles to achieving full traceability, including lack of labels, incomplete records, commingling product, and the interoperability of existing systems.

In his remarks, Taylor insisted that traceability must extend from “farm to table.”

“One up, one down is a start, but I think we all agree we need to move beyond that,” said Taylor, during the meeting. 

Taylor was also quick to note that any traceability requirements should be “scale-appropriate,” and “reflect the diversity of farms”–words no doubt meant to assuage the widespread anxiety among small, organic, and sustainable farmers who fear that stiff and burdensome traceability requirements are coming their way.

Though panelists and those offering public comment did discuss the need to lessen the negative impact complying with traceability requirements could have on small farms and producers, the two-day event focused primarily on how to keep track of an increasingly complex and global food supply.

Kathy Means, vice president of government relations at the Produce Marketing Association, spoke about the need for the food industry to move towards full traceability in an increasingly complicated supply chain. “The produce industry is global, and that is not going to change–unless we all want to give up bananas,” Means told the audience during a panel discussion.

Currently, producers, farmers, packers, and processors use a hodgepodge of systems–many of them lacking interoperability–to inventory and trace food products through the supply chain, making it difficult for officials to track product back if there is an outbreak of foodborne illness, or food is found to be adulterated.

The Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) Salmonella peanut butter outbreak earlier this year–which ultimately led to the recall of over 4,000 products–has become the classic example of both the challenges and necessity of food traceability. “No one knew what was in their products,” said Craig Wilson, director of food safety at Costco, during his presentation, which highlighted Costco’s measures to ensure full product traceability. “It’s so important because we’re protecting the public.”