I bet your Thanksgiving dinner did not include romaine lettuce. And maybe not Christmas dinner either.
As you were grocery shopping for the first of those holidays, the Centers for Disease Control, in conjunction with the FDA and USDA, warned consumers not to eat any romaine lettuce until the source of an E. coli outbreak could be found. Canadian food safety authorities were involved, too, as 27 cases appeared in that country.
It was only the second commodity-wide “do not eat” warning in the memory of David Acheson – and as a former associate commissioner for foods in the FDA (now CEO of his own consultancy, The Acheson Group), he has a pretty long memory. The last time he recalls such announcement was in 2006 in relation to spinach.
I know the romaine outbreak is a while back now – and lettuce is a commodity, not a processed food – but it takes some dust settling on that incident to drive home the bigger point: In this highly computerized day and age, one-up/one down supply chain traceability may be the law but it’s obviously not good enough. Not for fresh produce, and not for any food product.
It’s incredible that this country went seven days without regulators knowing even the growing region that was the source of the contamination (central California), and nearly a month before it was pinpointed. As of this writing, I’m not sure CDC and FDA have ruled out other possible sources.
Packaged/processed foods carry labels that make a NASCAR automobile look bland. It’s clear what company is responsible for that package in your shopping cart, even if that company didn’t make the final product. And the processor or marketer certainly didn’t make every single ingredient, but they know who did.
“There is little doubt that the announcement stopped the outbreak – assuming it was indeed due to romaine,” says Acheson. “However, the announcement also will have cost the produce industry at all levels – from grower to retail and food service – tens of millions of dollars.”
As Acheson wrote at the end of his food safety blog: “I do wonder whether the motive for the pre-Thanksgiving announcement was really all about protecting public health, or was it a strong message to the produce industry that three outbreaks linked to romaine in the recent past is just too much, and it is time for change in the industry. I think it was both, and only time will tell if the industry – and by that I mean grower to point of sale to consumer – is ready to invest in change.”
Growers had little choice but to agree to some immediate change. Romaine lettuce was allowed back on grocery shelves just after Thanksgiving only after a voluntary labeling agreement between FDA and some key romaine grower-shippers. “Each pledged to label their romaine products with the region where grown and approximate harvest date,” said United Fresh Produce Assn. “This will allow FDA to communicate to consumers that product coming back into the marketplace could not have been related to the outbreak.
“In addition to the labeling agreement, the industry and FDA have agreed to work together to continue improvement in the tracking and tracing of romaine lettuce through the supply chain,” UFPA continued. “Improved data capture at all supply chain points is a prerequisite to leveraging technology that can quickly illuminate supply chain pathways.”
There’s a bigger lesson here for all food categories. From traditional ERP systems to blockchain, there are technologies available to trace foods – certainly produce and even the key ingredients in processed foods – all the way back to the farm or the ingredient creator, but they obviously are not being utilized fully.
Mike Edgett of ERP software company Infor, added: “I do think the shock/concern that regulators and consumers had was that after all the work and laws that have put in place, we still can’t isolate a problem when it appears like this. Traceability should be considered a basic requirement for any food company, but obviously much is still needed, especially in the agriculture segments.”
Especially but not exclusively in the agriculture segments. Everybody in the food industry says food safety is paramount. I hope everyone is putting their money where our mouths are.