Do you know where your food comes from—or where it's going? If you’re a food distributor or manufacturer, the answer is probably not.

That’s the conclusion of a report presented today by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service’s (HHS) inspector general, Daniel Levinson, at a House hearing on food safety. Federal law requires food manufacturers and distributors to keep records on their goods' stops along the production chain, such as the processors and packers that handle them. They're also supposed to track who transports them and what stores they end up in to make it easier for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to trace the origin of food-borne illnesses. But 59 percent of manufacturers and distributors couldn’t provide Levinson's investigators with all of that information, and 25 percent were clueless about the requirement, Levinson told the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration and Related Agencies.

Levinson told lawmakers that investigators asked 118 businesses for the sources, recipients and transporters of their products. Seventy of them weren’t able to provide all of the information, and another six provided none whatsoever; 26 claimed to be unaware of the record-keeping law.

Levinson noted that this points to a major reason it took the FDA so long to find the source of the recent salmonella outbreak, which has sickened a reported 691 people and may be linked to nine deaths since September.

In the wake of the nationwide salmonella outbreak, President Obama earlier this month created a panel to examine and update food-safety laws. Levinson recommended today that the FDA seek statutory authority to strengthen the record-keeping requirements for companies. Right now, the law requires processors, packers and manufacturers to record batch numbers for their products, but distributors, storage facilities and retailers are not required to do so. Legislation introduced this month in the Senate would give the FDA increased funding and the regulatory authority to access company records. A similar bill introduced in the House by subcommittee chair Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) would authorize the FDA to beef up its food-tracing system, but it leaves how to do that (through more record-keeping or otherwise) up to the agency. DeLauro's panel controls the FDA's budget. 

"The traceability of food products and the ability of food facilities to provide information about their sources, recipients, and transporters are essential to ensuring the safety of our nation’s food supply," Levinson told the subcommittee. "In the event of an outbreak of a food-borne illness, FDA needs to be able to quickly identify the source of a contamination and remove unsafe products from retail shelves. These findings demonstrate that more needs to be done to protect public health and to ensure that FDA has the necessary resources and tools to respond to a food emergency."

A spokesperson for the FDA, Stephanie Kwisnek, said the agency was working with HHS and state officials on how to better protect Americans from food-borne illnesses and improve its ability to trace food products. "This includes determining whether additional statutory authority is needed," she said.

Dairy production line © iStockphoto/Mark Yuill