Today, the senate voted to work on a bill called the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act that would, among other things, require food producers, facilities and distributors in the United States to evaluate hazards more rigorously, undergo more inspections each year and implement preventive measures to keep food pathogen-free.
Green tech companies that could benefit from higher standards for food safety provide: tests for e.coli, listeria, salmonella, and the geographic origins of food (IdahoTech, Picarro); energy-efficient refrigeration (NanoICE, CamFridge); and inventory management systems (Erply, OpenBravo).
With films like Food Inc. and books like Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals winning praise for investigations that reveal how commercial food and farming exhausts natural resources, pollutes the air and soil, and hurts human health on a number of levels, the bill seems timely at least.
If passed into law, it would empower the Food And Drug Administration to force food recalls. Today, food regulating agencies (the FDA and USDA) negotiate with food business owners who ultimately conduct recalls voluntarily, but are often too late to stop people and animals from getting sick, or too slow and ineffective to stop vast amounts of food waste.
According to the author of American Wasteland, Jonathan Bloom, about 25% of all food produced domestically is tossed and not eaten each year. The Center For Foodborne Illness Research And Prevention (CFI) reports that 76 million illnesses result domestically from bacterial contamination in food and water yearly, costing more than $10 billion, and leading to 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths.
In food safety news this summer, Wright County Egg in Iowa recalled hundreds of millions of eggs contaminated with salmonella. The company’s owners in 1997 paid a $2 million fine to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for workplace violations; they’d forced workers to handle manure and dead chickens with their bare hands, among other things.
More stringent inspections and food safety laws could make the dirtiest practices of factory farms cost-prohibitive. However, opponents of the senate bill (writing in Grist) believe the bill hurts the small farmer, and gives too much control to the FDA. They also worry that the regulations would cause untenable price hikes on food, thanks to increased fines for violations, and the cost of new technology and talent companies would have to attain and manage to become compliant.
A senior consultant with Sparta Systems, Katie Dowling, says the food industry is well overdue for a tech makeover, and food businesses could actually save money by improving operations. Sparta’s TrackWise application helps highly regulated businesses— like food, drug, pharmaceutical and medical device makers— manage quality issues.
“One of the biggest technological challenges faced by food manufacturers today is that they have to know where their food was produced, down to the longitude and latitude coordinates where something was grown for any ingredient they use, or product they distribute. If there was cattle next to lettuce, there could be e-coli contamination going on… They need to know where it comes from.
Most of the systems food producers and facilities have been using until now— especially as you go back through the supply chain and get down to the farm level— they don’t talk to each other, they don’t record data in real time, and they dont’ track some of the most important safety data.
Smaller farms and food businesses think they can’t afford technology to do more than a manual report on Excel, but it is far more costly if they lose a major customer because they caused a problem, or if they have to pay fines if they don’t have appropriate documentation when the FDA shows up for an inspection.”
Dowling believes software and systems that work on mobile devices, or that use temperature controls and sensors in food facilities could be in high demand if the senate bill becomes law. President Obama has expressed his support of the proposed regulation, and in March 2009 launched the Food Safety Working Group to advise him on how to upgrade the U.S. food safety system.
Eggs image via: TheMonnie