Can alerts about food-borne illness be more helpful?

Since the tragic spinach crisis of 2006, all parties in the produce supply chain, have been working to improve every aspect of their growing and shipping processes. There have been numerous improvements around food safety, traceability, handling, refrigeration, education and training. After all this effort, what results can we see? The diligence from leafy green growers especially, has been intense and the improvements significant, however the outbreaks of food-borne illness still occur, and more importantly take a long time to detect and then sometimes longer, to identify the source.

The challenges are significant, and this article highlights a few of the key elements.

Firstly, time is of the essence. In the most recent romaine scare (Sept – Dec 2018), the outbreak was announced on November 21st, right before Thanksgiving, with the warning not to consume any romaine. The warning mentioned that the product in question had been harvested in early September, some six weeks earlier. This is not unusual. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) can only alert the public when there is sufficient evidence of an incident. Some of the bacteria that are involved in such outbreaks may take several weeks to incubate in the person who has consumed the product. Even if it’s only two weeks, asking a sick person, “Did you eat any suspect food in the last few weeks?” doesn’t lend itself to a response upon which you could take immediate action! CDC has to wait for a cluster of such cases to identify common sources – maybe the same store or chain of stores or the same brand of product, and so the detective work begins.

For some crops, identifying the geographical region is not too difficult as certain crops are only harvested from certain regions at specific times of the year. It was obvious quite early during the romaine outbreak that the likely region was southern California; it’s the region where almost all romaine is being harvested in early September. However, within that region there are many farms, with many fields, and many of them growing romaine at that time of year. Farms often have multiple sources of irrigation water, and this is only one possible source of the pathogen. It could also have come from a human source – someone handling the produce, or from equipment, or from an animal or bird. Leafy greens are particularly susceptible as there is no kill-step in the harvesting process; the romaine head is cut from the ground and put directly into a bag or carton for shipping to a distribution center, and then to a store. It’s not washed (unless it goes into a sliced bagged salad for example) or treated in some other way, to kill the pathogen.

Another element in the puzzle is the paperwork or computer systems that are used to capture data about the product, once the product is harvested and begins its journey to the store. Nowadays, almost all data is entered into computer systems, although paper systems often provide a critical back-up. For the most part, all the parties in the supply chain (and there are several), maintain data in their own systems, which are not connected together. This is a problem when trying to connect the dots. There are efforts underway to have all traceability data entered into the same computer system, which will aid traceability.

Sadly, some new solutions are not the panacea, for which we are all hoping. They rely on accurate data being entered at every step of the product’s journey, and especially at the start when the product is harvested. If accurate and relevant data is captured from the point of harvest, and then at each change of ownership or location, then the system will fully support traceability. In the event that there is an outbreak – which no computer system can fully prevent – then it will be possible to quickly identify all the places to start looking for a smoking gun.

At Procurant, we are a new company using new technologies which do offer the promise of much better traceability. This will add an important piece in the puzzle of quickly identifying outbreaks so that the messaging to the general public will be more helpful.

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