Costco Foodborne Hepatitis A Outbreak Highlights Track & Trace Challenges in Global Sourcing

Besides adding the hepatitis A virus to the list of contamination worries for food, the recent recall of frozen berries with pomegranate seeds distributed through Costco and Harris Teeter stores highlighted once again that, when it comes to track and trace, it's still the Wild West—or, in this case, the Wild East. (Epidemiologists were zeroing in on pomegranate seeds processed in Turkey as the source of the contamination.)

On Tuesday, Harris Teeter stores joined the recall of Townsend Farms Organic Antioxidant Blend initiated six days earlier by Costco, which sold 332,00 3 lb. bags of the product. By the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s count, the product could be linked to as many as 61 cases of Hepatitis A liver disease.

Fairview, Ore.-based Townsend Farms ordered its recall the same week the mining of metadata by the National Security Agency (NSA) was the dominant national news story. And in the view of the head of a track-and-trace software company, metadata mining offers a viable solution to the fragmented recall abilities of the U.S. food chain.

"We think that analytics, along with trace solutions like our IRIS platform, are the future," proclaims Michael Lucas, president and CEO of Frequentz. The Los Altos, Calif., software firm has worked with Earthbound Farms since 2006, in the wake of the E. coli O157:H7-recall involving spinach processed at Earthbound's facility. The system became much more powerful last year when Frequentz purchased IBM's InfoSphere Traceability Server. While the server isn't in the same league as NSA's million-square-foot data center in Utah, where billions of pieces of data from personal devices, phone logs and IP addresses will be processed every day, it has enough muscle to fill in the blanks between where food is sourced to whose kitchen it goes.

Keeping tainted food from ever reaching a store or restaurant is the first priority, and Frequentz proved its capabilities on Earthbound's behalf last fall, when it traced back bagged peanuts in a salad kit through a copacker to Sunland Inc., the Portales, N.M., peanut processor linked to a Salmonella outbreak involving 42 individuals in 20 states. Had the salad kits been sold to customers of Natural Selection Foods, Frequentz's powerful new database could have been used to notify the individuals who purchased the kits, using credit and debit card data to identify them.

"As long as the data is stored where it can be uploaded to the cloud, that data is visible to the organizations who need it for a recall and, more importantly to consumers," he says.

The Produce Traceability Initiative that requires electronic traceability to the caseload and data-sharing with FDA in the event of an outbreak relies on barcodes assigned by GS1, the successor to the UPC barcode system. Frequentz is migrating to SG10, a serialization convention that extends to the unit level, according to Lucas. "It's like giving a license plate to the package."

Of course, the system's Achilles heel, as with other track & trace solutions, is the need for a closed loop. With half of U.S. fruits and vegetables arriving from offshore, identifying the source of a contamination event is a problem. In the case of the Townsend Farms antioxidant blend, components were sourced from the U.S., Argentina, Chile and Turkey. Nonetheless, Lucas believes analytics would have quickly identified the broker who imported the suspect seeds and identified other food processors who might have received them.