The produce industry is already well on its way to enhancing its ability to trace back product more effectively and efficiently, Produce Marketing Association (PMA) President Bryan Silbermann told members of Congress on July 30.

Silbermann testified before the House Agriculture Committee’s Horticulture and Organic Agriculture Subcommittee, as part of a hearing that was called to study produce traceability because of claims that problems have slowed the still-lingering Salmonella saintpaul foodborne illness investigation linked to fresh produce.

“The produce industry has already rapidly changed to avoid the introduction of risk into the food system,” because of its longtime commitment to food safety and the recent impetus provided by the foodborne illness outbreak linked to spinach in late 2006, Silbermann told committee members.

“It is not the private sector’s role to wait passively for government to regulate; we must act, and we are doing so,” Silbermann said.

Silbermann noted that the produce industry has had a longstanding legal obligation to maintain product records, since the 1930 passage of the Perishable Agricultural Commodities Act. The Bioterrorism Act of 2002 added the “one-up, one-back” concept.

As a result, produce companies should already have internal systems to track produce. Nonetheless, PMA and its allies at United Fresh Produce Association (United Fresh) and Canadian Produce Marketing Association saw the need to create a common platform to link those individual approaches, to provide additional enhancements including electronic recordkeeping.

The steering committee guiding the associations’ Produce Traceability Initiative began its work last year, and will complete its first phase of work by announcing a timetable for industry adoption of electronic, chainwide traceability after the group’s meeting next month. The group’s next phase of effort will focus on achieving industry implementation.

“We are well on our way to achieving enhancements, and at our own urging,” Silbermann commented before his testimony. “But apparently news that industry is finding its own solutions isn’t interesting enough to those who would rather lay blame. Blaming is easy, finding a solution is hard.”

Silbermann has also challenged accounts that industry members’ lack of traceability capability has impeded the ongoing Salmonella saintpaul investigation. Generally industry members can trace product as needed, he said, though enhancements such as electronic recordkeeping will considerably accelerate the process and better protect public health. PMA briefed Food and Drug Administration and other government officials about the initiative earlier this year.

Commenting on recent congressional calls for federal legislation mandating traceability, Silbermann concluded his testimony by stating, “It is our profound hope that any future legislative and regulatory changes will be fashioned to work with the industry, to fulfill our shared responsibility to protect public health – by providing safe, wholesome and nutritious food, every bite, every time.”

Founded in 1949, the Produce Marketing Association is the leading trade association representing nearly 3,000 companies from every segment of the global produce and floral supply chain.