Last May, shipments of Florida grape tomatoes carrying Salmonella were sent to retailers and processors in 10 states and Canada before the distributor finally learned its product was contaminated. If it didn’t act fast enough, the distributor, Six L’s Packing Co., could have a potentially serious outbreak on its hands.

foodsystem-406.jpgDidn’t hear about that one? That’s probably because Six L’s was able to recall all of its shipments before any consumers got sick, thanks largely to the rapid recall fostered by a relatively young program within the U.S. Food and Drug Administration known as the Reportable Food Registry.

Enacted by Congress in 2007 and launched by the FDA in 2009, the Reportable Food Registry (RFR) is an online portal for food industry officials and government regulators to report foods in commerce that could cause probable harm to consumers.  Whether foods contain an unlabeled allergen or test positive for a pathogen, the registry has established an infrastructure in which harmful products are removed from the food system at a faster rate than previously possible.

Food recalls occurred before 2009, of course, but the RFR has streamlined the process, according to Kathy Gombas, Acting Director of the FDA’s Office of Food Defense, Communication and Emergency Response. The registry emphasizes fast coordination and communication between industry personnel and regulators.

Here’s how it works: When any facility that produces or provides food learns of a potentially harmful food in commerce, a party responsible for that facility are required to log in to the RFR’s Safety Reporting Portal and file an accurate report within 24 hours. The FDA calls this a “primary report.”

After someone files a primary report, they are responsible for notifying their immediate suppliers and their immediate recipients of the product. These notifications result in “subsequent reports” from connected facilities that help the FDA coordinate recalls when necessary.

The subsequent reports serve another important function: They help the FDA understand the distribution of foods through the supply chain from grower to processor to distributor. The FDA then shares its data with industry in the hope of improving responsiveness across the board.

“With reportable food reports, not only does FDA learn about patterns, so does industry,” Gombas said. “Industry is going to be beefing up their guidance documents on preventive controls.”

Gombas cited two commodities with industry trade associations that are already updating guidance documents based on recent recalls: Spices and baked goods.

The FDA strongly encourages industry parties to submit amended reports in the event new information on a contaminated product comes to light. Public health authorities are also encouraged to submit any type of report when the opportunity arises, but unlike industry, they are not legally required to do so.

On April 19, the FDA released its second annual review of the RFR program that covered September 2010 to September 2011, a year that included 225 primary reports. That compares to 229 primary reports from the program’s first year.

FDA officials have said that the agency will need a few more years of data collection to identify trends and determine the typical number of reports in a year. In the meantime, the passing of the Food Safety Modernization Act will introduce some new elements to the program.

Soon, primary reports will need to include consumer-oriented information such as UPC, SKU or lot batch numbers for easy identification, along with contact information for the company responsible. The FDA will take this information and format it into a one-page summary on for grocery stores to printy as customer notifications.

Grocery store chains with 15 or more locations will be required to display these one-page summaries within 24 hours of it appearing on the FDA’s website and must display them for at least 14 days.

These efforts all go toward reducing the chance of contaminated foods sickening consumers, Gombas said. She said the FDA considers the program “extremely useful.”

At the moment, the program covers only foods regulated at least partially by the FDA, but not those regulated exclusively by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, such as meat, poultry and certain egg products.

At the very least, consumers might not have to worry about grape tomatoes.