As the E. coli outbreak connected to romaine lettuce from Yuma, AZ turned deadly this week, everyone in the produce industry has questions: How did this happen? Why can’t the source be isolated? And how can we keep it from happening again?
This outbreak has been particularly tricky. The slow march of the industry’s voluntary Produce Traceability Initiative (PTI) and the new Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) has not been enough to snuff out foodborne outbreaks. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says a paperwork tangle is slowing down the investigation.
But shouldn’t the PTI standards that are already in place, accompanied by sleek new technology like blockchain, be enough to prevent outbreaks like this?
FDA Traceability Troubles Are ‘Mystifying’
“It’s hard to understand why it’s been so challenging for FDA to figure out what’s caused the outbreak,” United Fresh Vice President of Food Safety Jennifer McEntire told SPW May 3. “Although produce supply chains are complicated and some have blamed traceability, FDA reports they are investigating ‘dozens of … fields’ based on the traceback. Why FDA cannot find convergence, or a common factor, is mystifying. The industry has continually and aggressively offered assistance but the FDA process really restricts their ability to take advantage of our insight and knowledge.”
Added Walmart Vice President of Food Safety Frank Yiannas, “From what has been reported, the CDC had solid epidemiological evidence that indicated that romaine lettuce from Yuma was the probable food vehicle responsible for the E. coli 0157:H7 outbreak.
“However, to trace back where the romaine lettuce came from with more granularity that was consumed by ill patrons, health officials have a hard time, because many of the participants involved with producing and distributing produce still use paper-based systems to manage records.
“Even if they capture information in digital form, the data is often in disparate systems that do not speak with each other. Therefore, being able to track back where the romaine came from to the place where the romaine was eaten or purchased can be a very difficult, labor intensive, and lengthy task.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control reports that through May 1, 121 people have been sickened in 25 states since the outbreak began March 13, leading to 52 hospitalizations and the first death, reported this week from California. This strain of E. Coli is particularly fierce – 14 of those hospitalized have developed a type of kidney failure called hemolytic uremic syndrome.
Even worse, CDC says the case number is almost certain to grow – any cases reported since April 13 have not worked their way through the system. And no one knows whether the contaminated product has left the food chain – or when it might. CDC had suggested in early April that the outbreak was over – then the case count began to rise again.
The CDC once again made it clear this week that people simply should not risk eating Romaine until further notice unless they can be absolutely certain it’s not from Yuma. Increasingly, restaurants and consumers are becoming unwilling to take that risk.
Why Is This Outbreak So Hard To Pin Down?
That punishes every grower of romaine in the country, not just those in Yuma. It takes a significant product out of the supply chain for distributors and off grocery store shelves. As has been said before, in the produce industry, the government has a rubber bat – rules and regulations can sting – but consumers have a wooden bat that can do real and lasting damage.
So why is this outbreak so hard to pin down?
The short answer is: No one knows.
PTI clearly has not been fully adopted by the industry. FSMA still leaves gaps for compliance to catch up. Blockchain is so new most of us don’t even understand what it is, much less how to use it (for a good look at what it is and what it can do, check out our video with some of the nation’s leading experts from Wal-Mart, IBM, Driscoll’s and GS1 below).
Said Yiannas, “Assuming romaine growers had adopted PTI and were leveraging a blockchain food traceability solution like the one we’ve been working on, health officials could either obtain a record of what an establishment received or maybe even scan a leftover bag of romaine from an ill person’s refrigerator and trace it back to source — along with all points of how it traveled from farm to store — in two seconds, not days or weeks.
“Thus, it’s likely a fully or partially implemented blockchain solution in the romaine industry would have led to a) more rapid answers by CDC and FDA b) possibly prevented illnesses among cases that may have been consumed romaine lettuce later in the epidemic/outbreak curve, c) prevented a lot of good romaine lettuce that was not truly involved in the outbreak from being thrown away, and d) reduced a tremendous amount of consumer confusion.”
Shouldn’t it be simple to track down products from case numbers to the farm or facility where the infection occurred? Only one facility, Harrison Farm in Yuma, has been tied to any of the illnesses, and only eight cases – all in inmates at a prison in Alaska — have been tracked back to product from that location. Federal researchers from CDC and USDA say a tangled web of documentation is slowing the search.
“We haven’t received all of those records yet. We are looking at all points in the supply chain, from growers to the restaurants and retailers, as is the practice for all outbreak investigations,” FDA Director of the Coordinated Outbreak Response and Evaluation Network Stic Harris said in late April at a press conference.
Which shows that without full implementation, the PTI is less a safety net than a safety hope. The PTI standards call for handlers to be able to track product one step forward and one step back in the supply chain: the buyer, for example, should know the source, and be able to provide information about the product’s next stop. When it works, the concept is breathtakingly simple – an uninterrupted chain of information that almost instantly tracks any problem directly to the source.
So why isn’t it working? FDA and CDC say it’s because the traceability chain is not strong enough. One-step-forward and one-step-back means a lot of phone calls to make and doors to knock on as investigators work their way through the food chain.
Said Yiannas, “Each participant in the continuum must disclose their product’s path ‘one step forward and one step back.’ Regulatory officials must take that data and piece it together manually to determine the source of an issue. According to FDA, this can include reviewing hundreds of paper documents.”
Greens are particularly susceptible to foodborne pathogens. The crinkles and crevices in heads and leaves provide comfortable hiding places for bacteria to colonize. And since most greens are eaten raw, consumers can potentially be infected with a single bite. A mechanical chopper or an employee with a dirty knife can spread infection from one head through an entire lot.
Since 2010, there have been nine foodborne illness outbreaks from E. coli associated with green lettuce or sprouts compared to 12 from all other sources, including meat and dairy, according to the CDC.
Preventing infections from contaminated greens is disturbingly simple: A 30-second rinse with fresh water does the trick, the CDC says. Even for pre-packaged greens, that should provide an easy answer. It clearly hasn’t.
Said Yiannas, “This unfortunate outbreak illustrates why the work we’ve been doing using blockchain to enable a new era of traceability is so important.”
“In a situation such as this it is pertinent to stick to accurate facts, which can be found on the CDC and FDA websites,” a Produce Marketing Association (PMA) spokesperson told SPW May 3. “We continue to monitor the reports put out by these regulatory agencies and offer our support in any way possible to find the source of this outbreak.”