Romaine lettuce & E. coli: a lesson in fresh produce traceability


An outbreak of E. coli in the United States left 25 people hospitalised late last year. Outbreaks of this magnitude are rare nowadays, with fresh produce companies making huge strides in food safety over the last few decades. However, many have raised concerns over the time and resources needed to locate the source of this outbreak, with it taking nearly three months.

Now that the fresh produce sector has time to reflect, many are taking this as an opportunity to learn and make necessary change. Some are looking at new ways to improve their traceability, with technological, cultural and operational changes being assessed by senior managers. Firstly, let’s look at the lessons we learned from the ordeal, then we’ll examine some of the ways forward.

Romaine: a recap

Food-borne illnesses are inevitable and unavoidable. For fruit and vegetables, fertilizers and even water can allow diseases like E. coli to spread. Growers, pickers and packers therefore do not often know of an outbreak until it’s too late.

Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in North America are connected using a platform called PulseNet. PulseNet collates data from a nationwide collective of laboratories and scientists. The outbreak was first detected in late November 2018, when scientists discovered a common factor between the bouts of the disease. The E. coli bacteria reviewed in 16 states shared the exact same footprint, demonstrating a centralised source. The detected bacteria, E. coli O157:H7, was actually a dangerous strain that destroys the lining of blood vessels. Fortunately, no one died as a result of the outbreak.

In the following weeks, the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) began investigative work to identify the source of the outbreak. This work was manual, whereas with full traceability in place, the investigation could have been reduced from a couple of weeks to a matter of minutes.

Eventually, three possible sources were found. At the time of writing, two of the sources have not been confirmed, four months after the outbreak was discovered. The HHS previously noted how poor traceability is a concern in terms of both bioterrorism and public health. This outbreak would have only reaffirmed their concerns.


Investigations and implications

In January 2019, the CDC published an update on the outbreak, confirming that the outbreak had been stemmed but there were still investigations ongoing. One investigator told Wired magazine, “trying to find all those records, whether they be digital records or written records or handwritten records, is extremely tough.”

With the investigators highlighting their concerns, it won’t necessarily be retailers (like Walmart) who set the standards in terms of traceability requirements.

New North American traceability standards?

In North America, the most widely recognised standard for food traceability is GS1 Traceability Standard, which is part of the wider US & Canadian Produce Traceability Initiative. The PTI has outlined a 7 step roadmap for improving traceability in the event of these kinds of outbreaks, some of which have been adopted closely by buyers.

There are issues with traceability up and down the supply chain, which have also been highlighted. Restaurants and packaged food businesses were also relying upon crystal clear information to ensure their customers weren’t affected by the outbreak.

To achieve traceability, the PTI recommends US & Canadian businesses:

  1. Obtain a unique GS1 company prefix to categorise all food products by the company that sourced them.

  2. Assign global trade item numbers (GTIN) to each case configuration.

  3. Communicate GTINs to customers

  4. Provide human-readable labelling on cases

  5. Encode information within a barcode labelling system

  6. Read and store information on inbound cases (for packers and shippers)

  7. Read and store information on outbound cases

While this process is recommended now, there are hopes that implementing further technologies will alleviate every business in the supply chain from needing to conduct this very same process: adding to cost, taking up time, and eating into the precarious margins already stressing out the industry.


A better solution?

Some news outlets have even chosen to use this case as an opportunity to demonstrate the value of brand new technologies. Forbes and Wired chose to report on the case with regards to blockchain technology, a method of sharing knowledge across the entire fresh produce supply chain. We’ve put together a white paper on blockchain in the fresh produce industry to examine just what its implications are.

But is the movement towards blockchain just a utopian vision or a practical reality? New technologies almost always involve some sort of transformation, as we’ve seen with suppliers of Walmart and IBM’s blockchain initiative. It will require fresh produce companies to rethink the way they comply with traceability responsibilities.

It’s still very early days, and blockchain is definitely in its infancy in the fresh produce industry. At LINKFRESH though, we believe it’s a very positive step in the right direction.

Is it time technology took over traceability?

With investigations taking nearly three months, the industry has recognised the need for change in terms of traceability. With the potential for public health crises revealed by this outbreak, more regulations and standards are set to come to the fore.

The CDC relied upon qualitative surveys and a nation-wide examination into the footprint of the bacteria to locate similarities. In the event of another outbreak, blockchain technologies could allow almost instantaneous insight into a product’s history. Clearly, something needs to be done and blockchain technology could be the answer.

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