The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Wednesday announced the launch of two pilot programs that will explore the best methods for tracing back food to its source. 

The pilots are mandated by the new FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, which requires FDA to implement a set of record-keeping requirements for companies that produce high-risk foods in order to improve the traceability of these products.

Two food categories – produce and processed foods – will be assessed, one by each program, in order to determine the most efficient ways to record and communicate product information. 

The pilots will be conducted by the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT), which last year released a recommended set of traceback guidelines to FDA. These two new studies will serve as guidance for FDA as it develops its proposed rules for food industry record-keeping. 

“The pilots are an important step in helping us … to learn more about tracing food products back to identify a common source in the supply chain when a food contamination event occurs, such as in a foodborne outbreak,” said Sherri McGarry of FDA, head of the Inspections and Compliance Implementation Team for FSMA. 

Knowing where the various ingredients of a product came from is a key element in a foodborne illness outbreak investigation. This allows health departments to recall products and potentially prevent more people from getting sick. But traceback can be difficult when items such as frozen meals may include upwards of 10 or even 30 ingredients from multiple sources. 

“Tracing helps us to determine not only what food may be the cause of the outbreak but also those foods that may be less likely to be involved,” says McGarry

FDA says that significant gaps exist in today’s current record-keeping systems. 

“Many producers, manufacturers and retailers have product tracing systems in place but they vary depending on the amount of information the system records, how far forward or backwards in the supply chain the system tracks, technologies used to maintain records and the precision with which a system can pinpoint a product’s movement,” it reports on its Product Tracing site.  

These two new FSMA-mandated projects will focus on what types of records are currently collected and how this existing data can be better communicated, as well as what further information must be recorded, says Jennifer McEntire, Manager of Science and Technology Projects for IFT.

The current studies will focus on those foods that have been linked to a foodborne illness outbreak within the past few years, she says. 

The projects, says McEntire, will be a collaboration among all stakeholders in food traceback. IFT hopes to hear from any producers of produce or processed items interested in being involved in the project.  

“FDA has indicated it wants to include industries representing the entire supply chain, from growers to restaurants and grocery stores,” says McGarry. 

IFT will also be seeking input from traceback technology companies that may be able to offer insight into the most efficient tracing solutions.

However, McEntire stresses that no one technology or solution will be recommended by IFT in its final report – which it hopes to release in 9 months. 

IFT will begin soliciting advice from stakeholders in a few weeks, McEntire says, and expects to complete the studies by early March of next year.