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Nutrition Informatics Blog

Jul

17

Barcoding Broccoli

Barcoding Broccoli

Elaine Ayres, MS, RD

My husband and I just enjoyed a wonderful summer dinner on the back porch—hamburgers on the grill, corn on the cob, a spinach salad, and melon with blackberries. This time of year, we enjoy an abundance of local produce. We picked the blackberries at a farm nearby, and the corn came from a county field. 

A further analysis of our dinner took us farther from home. The organic ground-beef label said “US or Canada.” I guess the steer would not commit to a nationality. Our salad was downright international—the baby spinach and carrots from the United States, the yellow pepper from Holland, and the cherry tomatoes from Mexico. I have no idea where the broccoli was grown, because it was purchased at the local supermarket where it rested on a bed of crushed ice—no package, no label, no bar code.

In 2011, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA)was signed into law. The goal of this legislation is to ensure the safety of the United States food supply. As our dinner demonstrates, the United States food supply is no longer local, but rather national and international. Michael Taylor from the FDA notes that we now import more than 50% of our fresh fruit and 20% of our fresh vegetables.

Mexico leads the way in supplying the United States with our fruits and vegetables—more than 1000 truckloads of produce per day cross the border from Mexico into Arizona. What if that produce is tainted? Many foods now have a label with a point of origin. My clamshell box of cherry tomatoes states “Product of Mexico.” Better yet, the Universal Product Code (UPC) or bar code on the package tells me even more. Even my pepper from Holland has a sticker on it with a miniscule bar code. That bar code contains information about the manufacturer and the item, allowing investigators dealing with a foodborne illness outbreak to track the food to its source. 

The FDA announced on July 12, 2012, that it is taking food forensics to a new level with the 100K Genome Project. Working together with the University of California at Davis, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the US Dept of Agriculture (USDA), scientists will develop a DNA database of genetic codes for 100,000 types of foodborne bacteria. A public database maintained by the National Institutes of Health’s National Library of Medicine, National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) will house these bacterial genetic codes of pathogens such as Salmonella, Listeria, and E coli.

In the future, the bacterial genetic codes will prove even better than bar codes. The bacterial variants will reveal not only the type of food, but also the geographic location of origin. The FDA predicts that this new database will decrease the response time to a foodborne illness outbreak from weeks to days.

Our dinner plates are now a virtual travelogue of farms and fields. As product labeling and packaging evolves, the safety of our international food supply will improve. While it is great to buy vegetables au naturel, in the future I hope my broccoli comes prepared for travel with a bar code!

 

 

 

 

Add a Comment
Comments (2):
7/27/2012 1:16:39 AM by Barbara

A few months ago we enjoyed a marvelous Peking duck dinner in a Beijing restaurant. With our bill we received a slip bearing a unique bar code for the bird that we had consumed with the explanation that it could be traced back to its point of origin if necessary.

7/27/2012 10:35:24 PM by Ricardo Ali Fernandez

I love broccoli.

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