WASHINGTON (AP) — Try searching for a culprit in the 90 brands caught up in the recent recall of canned chili, stew and other products, and you weave 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.

“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 Dr. David Acheson, who leads the Food and Drug Administration’s 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 $65 billion in store brand sales annually.

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

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