Fri, Sep 07, 2007 - Page 9 News List

Tracking food safety

By Andrew Bridges  /  AP , WASHINGTON

Try searching for a culprit in the 90 brands caught up in the recent recall of canned chili, stew and other products, and the trail weaves back to a single manufacturer.

That also was the case in recalls of spinach, pet food and frozen meat.

Companies increasingly are paying others to make the foods we eat -- or the ingredients in them -- and then selling it under multiple brand names. And that has prompted a growing debate about food safety.

This spring's rolling series of recalls of cat and dog food made with chemically tainted ingredients from China began in mid-March and stretched to late May.

"If people cannot trace a product back to a supplier, the supplier has no incentives to keep their processes as clean and effective, in terms of food safety, as possible," said Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer group.

But the food industry and regulators chalk up to coincidence the rash of recent major food safety recalls and the consolidation of food production

"One reason we are seeing this is because it's becoming a common industry practice," said David Acheson, who leads the US Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) food safety efforts.

Acheson said he knew of no evidence that outsourcing production is inherently less safe than traditional arrangements in which companies make what they sell.

Outsourcing makes financial sense for companies unwilling or unable to establish or expand manufacturing operations. Established manufacturers can use excess capacity to fill orders for others.

For some specialty products that require expensive machinery -- like pet food -- a limited number of contract manufacturers, such as Menu Foods, make products that are sold under dozens of brands.

"Being able to develop a product without having to sink a lot of money into fixed, tangible capital is every entrepreneur's dream,'' said Michael Sykuta, director of the Contracting and Organizations Research Institute at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

Store-brand or private-label products account for much of the growth in the food outsourcing business. Supermarkets, drug stores and mass merchandisers ring up more than US$65 billion in store brand sales annually.

That amounts to one in every five items they sell, according to the Private Label Manufacturers' Association.

But critics of the outsourcing of production warn that it creates increased vulnerability of the food supply. The manufacturer no longer is directly accountable to consumers, but to other companies, they maintain.

That makes for a long supply chain with several stops before a product reaches consumers, said Jean Kinsey, codirector of the Food Industry Center at the University of Minnesota.

"And not everyone along the way has the same vested interest in its safety." Kinsey said.

The Grocery Manufacturers' Association counters that there would be no reason for co-manufacturers or co-packers to skimp on food safety.

"If we use the classic term, `barking up the wrong tree,' that would be the case here," said Craig Henry, who helps oversee scientific and regulatory activities at the industry group.

But some food safety advocates say that when problems arise with foods made under contract, sorting out who made what can delay recalls or public health warnings.

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