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How can Blockchain Technology Help Improve Food Safety

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What Is Blockchain

The original blockchain was created by Bitcoin founder Satoshi Nakamoto to serve as the public ledger to record all Bitcoin transactions.
Blockchain – is a decentralized, shared log of data maintained on a network of computers, rather than a physical ledger. The primary purpose of blockchain is to record any transaction or movement of an asset. Therefore, it is a digital ledger of records that are organized in chunks of data called blocks.
The blocks are then linked with one another through a cryptographic (secure communications) validation. The linked blocks form an unbroken chain — a blockchain. It gives the network participants the ability to share ledger data. Each participant on the network can act as publisher and subscriber. Each participant can receive data and send data, and the data is synchronized throughout the network.
The main innovation of Blockchain is that it keeps all data in a sequence of “blocks,” which are spread over a computer network of nodes. It is impossible for any user to change or remove data because: (i) There is no central authority; (ii) because copies of the ledger are stored on every node. Whatever is put on the blockchain is cast in stone.
The main features of blockchain network include the ability of participants on each node to know where the products came from and how ownership changed over time. The blockchain provides a single place to determine the movement of goods.  No participant can change a transaction after it is recorded. The history of all the transactions (including reversal of error) is transparent to all users, and therefore the system is tamper-evident.
IBM has published an EBook detailing the technology. The blockchain built by IBM is called Hyperledger Fabric, and the company is trying to promote it to various industries. It is eagerly trying to sell subscriptions to blockchain related services and their integration with the cloud business.

Coalition of Companies are Using Blockchain

Fortune magazine reported that Walmart and a number of other food giants (Unilever, Dole, Nestlé,  Kroger, McCormick and Company, McLane Company, Driscoll’s, Tyson Foods, and Golden State Foods ) teamed up with IBM investigate how to utilize blockchain to improve the traceability of food and its ingredients.
According to Fortune magazine, Walmart ran a trial of blockchain utilization, in cooperation with IBM. In the first trial, they used blockchain to track the movement of pork in China.
In the second trial, they used blockchain to trace mangoes from Mexico. Tagged pallets of mangoes were traced through the blockchain. While manual tracing took almost a week, the software took a couple of seconds to show the results. In the event of a food pathogen outbreak, the difference between 6+ days and 2 seconds can be very significant.
Because of the success of these experiments, Walmart is now reaching out to other suppliers and retailers.

Examples of Use of Blockchain and its Benefits in Food Safety

Food manufacturers and suppliers like the idea of simple, automated tracking system of important information (temperature, delivery dates, safety certificates, etc.) available instantly.
Another use of Blockchain technology is to utilize sensors data in warehouses and transportation. It can serve as proof that the products were all along handled at the right temperature.

Examples of Potential Impact on Recalls of Contaminated Foods

Blockchain can allow companies to trace their products in case of a recall due to contaminated product, and remove it promptly from the shelves. The ability to pinpoint within minutes, where contaminated product might be, can revolutionize food safety.
Blockchain can allow tracing a contaminated papaya, for example, to a farm of origin and find the location of existing products on the market. Retailers can instantaneously remove these products from the shelves.
The Blockchain technology can play a major role in the investigation of foodborne illnesses.  For example, the outbreaks due to Salmonella in contaminated Maradol papayas imported from Mexico infected 251 people in 25 states. 79 of the infected people were hospitalized, and two deaths were reported. It took many months to identify the farms responsible for the outbreaks. If blockchain technology was in place and the origin of each papaya could be identified in seconds, the outbreak would have ended faster, with fewer victims.
Another example is the milk powder and buttermilk produced by Valley Milk Products (VMP) that presumably was contaminated with Salmonella.  The VMP recall resulted in a subsequent ripple effect of recalls affecting over 30 companies.  It included companies that bought products from VMP (first group), but also companies that used seasoning containing VMP products from the first group or products that were manufactured by a third party on lines where traces of the VMP were processed. If all parties involved were on a blockchain system, it could have taken less than a day to complete the recall saving most companies the trouble of going through the costly recalls.

Utilization in Food Fraud

In the Netherlands, Arc-net and PwC sign an agreement, using blockchain in the fight against food fraud. They are developing a supply chain authentication platform using blockchain in the cloud to allow food producers and retailers to assure the origin and authentication of their products.
 

Hurdles

Technology in early stages of development and faces some hurdles ranging from technological hurdles to legal, economic, and regulatory. All trials to date were on a very small scale. It must be adequately evaluated before any widespread adoption.
A technological hurdle is the cost of data storage in blockchain and the limited number of transactions per second.  However, this does not stop innovators from building on this promising solution.
A main challenge is how and who will be responsible for the governance of the technology. The regulatory framework for the technology is uncertain and unpredictable.  Will the technology be regulated by the authorities? Will they accept the technology?
The full benefit of blockchain will not be realized without widespread adoption by the industry. This is difficult due to the need to integrate blockchain into the industry’s countless number of information systems, lacking a common communication standard.
Despite these hurdles, the blockchain technology had made several baby steps and is turning into giant strides.

Summary

Blockchain is an exciting new technology that can revolutionize food safety. It can resolve many critical issues affecting food safety such as prevent unnecessary recalls, avoid cross-contamination, prevent foodborne illnesses, eliminate waste, simplify recalls, and save money. However, there are still some impediments that need to be overcome before widespread adaptation in food safety.  
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Multiple State Salmonella Outbreaks due to Papayas from Mexico is over: What have we Learn?

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According to reports by the CDC and the FDA, this summer outbreaks due to Salmonella-contaminated Maradol papayas imported from Mexico infected 251 people in 25 states. 79 of the infected people were hospitalized, and two deaths were reported.
The outbreak strains included: Salmonella Thompson (144), Kiambu (54), Anatum (20), Agona (12), Gaminara (7), Urbana (7), Newport & Infantis (4), and Senftenberg (3). Four brands of Maradol papayas were implicated:
  • Caribeña brand was distributed by Grande Produce between July 10 and 19.
  • Cavi distributed to wholesalers in New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey from July 16-19 and available to consumers until July 31. The product was distributed by distributed by Agroson’s.
  • Valery brand was distributed by Freshtex Produce, from July 10 to 13.
  • Fruta Selectas brand distributed by Bravo Produce to markets in the state of California between August 10 and 29.
Boarder testing of papayas by the FDA showed three additional positive samples linked to sick individuals. The papayas were from Caraveo Produce in Tecomán, Mexico, which tested positive for Salmonella Infantis and Newport. The Salmonella strains from this shipment have at least one PFGE (Pulsed-field gel electrophoresis) match to a sick person.  WGS (Whole Genome Sequencing) showed genetic relationship between the isolates from the papayas to ill individuals. The relationship between the papaya strains and the individuals can also indicate that previous shipments from Caraveo Produce were likely the cause of previous illnesses. Caraveo Produce identified the Rancho El Ganadero farm in Colima, Mexico as the supplier.
Currently the outbreak is over, and as a result, the final reports were published by the FDA and the CDC. Every few years there is a major outbreak related to imported produce. According to the CDC, in 2015 a major outbreak of Salmonella Poona in cucumbers imported from Mexico caused 907 infections in 40 states with 204 hospitalizations and six deaths. 
According to the CDC In 2011, there was another outbreak due to imported papayas from Mexico. It is important to note that since the last major outbreak, papayas from Mexico have been screened at the border by a third party laboratory. Only papayas that tested negative for Salmonella were allowed to enter the USA. Farms that have five consecutive shipments without Salmonella could be added to a “green” list. Farms with positive Salmonella, testing has been required to demonstrate that they have taken corrective action to prevent future contamination.
The new inspection regime worked for several years without any major infection due to Salmonella. However, the major outbreak this year may require some further thought about the current regulations.
With the implementation of the new FSMA produce rules it is hoped that both the domestic and imported produce will not cause such massive outbreaks.
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Listeria monocytogenes in Veggies Caused a Chain Reaction Across US and Canada

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A variety of minimally processed vegetables produced by Mann Packing of Salinas, California were recalled because of a possibility of contamination with Listeria monocytogenes.  The refrigerated and frozen vegetables were sold throughout the US and Canada. The recall of the vegetables from Mann Packaging impacted ten supermarket chains and several producers that used Mann Packaging products in their products. This huge recall is solely based on a single positive sample found during random sampling by Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

The Origin

The FDA announced that on October 19 that the Salinas, California-based Mann Packaging company, one of the largest suppliers of fresh vegetables in North America, issued a voluntary recall of freshly-cut vegetables. These products were stored in grocery freezers and were distributed to other supermarket chains and producers across the USA and Canada.
The recalled products included: Broccoli Cole Slaw, Broccoli Cauliflower Florets, Brussels Sprouts, California Stir Fry, Vegetable Medley,  Kale Beet Blend, Fiesta Vegetable Tray, Veggie Hummus Tray, Nourish Bowl Cauli Rice Curry, Nourish Bowl Monterey Risotto, Nourish Bowls Butternut Kale Risotto, Nourish Bowls Sesame Sriracha,, Culinary Cuts Cauliettes Chopped Cauliflower, Kale Caesar Kit, , and many more.
Mann Packaging management decided to recall the product after “a single positive result” for Listeria monocytogenes that was found in a product during random sampling by Canadian Food Inspection Agency.
“As an owner of this company and a mom, providing safe and healthy foods to our consumers and their families is always our top priority,” said Gina Nucci, Director of Corporate Marketing . “This voluntary recall is a reflection of our commitment to ensuring the safety of our consumers.”

Associated Recalls

As a result of the Mann Packaging recall, multiple recalls resulted in across the country because these products contained vegetables sourced from Mann Packaging.  The recall impacted numerous famous brands such as Mann’s brands, Archer Farms, Cross Valley, Signature and store brands from Wal-Mart, Target (Archer Farms) and Trader Joe’s.  It also affected some supermarket chains such as Meijer, Albertson, Safeway, Whole Foods Market, Vons, Randall’s Food Markets, Tom Thumb, Park N’ Save, H-E-B, and more.   Meijer, for example, recalled approximately 20 store brand products from over 300 stores in Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, Ohio, and Kentucky. Stores of Albertson’s, Randalls, and Tom Thumb, removed products sold under the Ready. Chef. Go! Label, in Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas. The seafood meals were in cooking bags and included vegetables from Mann Packing.
The recall also influenced restaurants, school cafeteria suppliers and institutions suppliers such as Triple B Corporation of Pacific Coast.  Paragon Wholesale Foods from Warrendale, PA distributed broccoli florets to multiple schools in the Greater Pittsburgh and Butler, PA areas.
According to the FDA, the recalls were issued as a result of the Listeria found in Mann Packaging products:
It is important to mention that there have been no illnesses associated with all these recalls.
It seems as if every day more companies are announcing recalls due to potential Listeria contamination as an impact of the recall by Mann Packaging, as the ripple effect continues through the USA and Canada.

Questions Asked

Important questions come to mind when reviewing this web of recalls:
Should such an impactful recall be done based on a single positive sample? Where there other signs of Listeria contamination in the plant? What happened to subsequent samples taken from the same product?
In the era of the immediacy of information through the Internet, why did it take so long for the recalls to trickle down to all the companies that purchased products from Mann packaging? Faster information transfer would have saved a lot of food and save a significant amount of money.
How can more effective announcement system be put into place?
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One Year Later: Is there an Effect of FSMA on FDA Food Recalls in 2017?

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In 2011 the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) was signed into law and started to be implemented in September of 2016.We looked at the recall statistics during similar periods in 2016 and 2017.  As in previous years, allergens and microbial contamination lead the reasons for recalls in both years. The early data does not show a significant impact of the new FSMA rules on recalls due to allergens. The total recalls due to microbial contamination were 60% higher in 2016 as compared to 2017. Could it be a result of the new FSMA regulations?

Original Believe of the Impact of FSMA

On January 4, of 2011 The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) was signed by President Obama. FSMA is believed to be the most far-reaching reform in food safety.  FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, M.D., posted a blog on the meaning of the new law.
The profound changes mentioned Included:
  • Preventing illnesses, rather than reacting to them. Food producers and processors are bearing the primary responsibility to illnesses prevention.
  • The law gives the FDA new legal power making sure companies are meeting their duty to prevent illnesses rather removing the food from the market after the fact.
 
  • Creating a risk-based system of food safety.
  • Assuring that importers of food use the same food safety rules as domestic manufacturers.
After a long preparation period, last September (2016), the first FSMA implementation step took effect, when companies having 500 + full-time employees had to comply with Preventive Control Rules.  Smaller companies will have another year or two to comply.

Comparison of FDA recall data 2016 (Jan-Sep) and the same months in 2017

In both periods the two major reasons for the FDA recalls were due to microbial contamination and undeclared allergens.  Most microbiological recalls are due to Listeria monocytogenes and Salmonella. Most undeclared allergens recall due to not declaring allergens on the product label.
Allergens have persisted as a leading reason for food recalls due to the implementation of labeling rules in the United States and Canada, which leads to greater regulatory scrutiny and enforcement. As can seem from the figure below, the number of recalls due to allergens was quite similar in 2016, and both were lower than the recalls due to microbial contamination. The early data does not show a significant impact of the new FSMA rules on recalls due to allergens.
 
 
The total recalls due to microbial contamination were 60% higher in 2016 as compared to 2017. It could be as a result of the new FSMA regulations that were put into place. However, almost all the difference is due to two large spikes in LM recalls in April-June of 2016. These recalls are a result of many recalls associated with SunOpta, a Canadian company that on May 4, 2016, recalled sunflower kernel products that had the potential to be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes.
The roasted sunflower kernel products were sold directly to customers and distributed to other manufacturers, including Quaker Oats, Planters and Clif Bar brands, PepsiCo, tree House, Atkins, Kashi, Hershey, Quaker, and many more companies.  It resulted in almost 50 recalls in April-May 2106. Adjusting the numbers of recalls excluding the SunOpta recalls making the two periods quite similar.

The Ripple Effect

In recent years, several cases of large-scale recalls have been linked to a single ingredient supplied to countless number of manufacturers.  In some cases, recall from a supplier to the industry causes a primary recall, followed by a secondary report and even a tertiary recalls. This happened 2017 due to powdered milk and buttermilk powder produced by Valley Milk Products (VMP). As we reported in January 2017, five months after the U.S. Marshals Service raided a powdered milk factory at the request of FDA, many companies were drawn into the Salmonella recall linked to milk powder and buttermilk produced by Valley Milk Products (VMP).
The Valley Milk Products recall resulted in a subsequent ripple effect of recalls affecting over 30 companies. Secondary recalls included companies such as Twinkies, Palmer candy, Herr Foods, Dawn Food Products, House- Autry, Dieffenbach’s,  Mikesell’s  and Route 11potato chips, Tupperware  Southwest Chipotle Seasoning, Stonewall Kitchen Cinnamon Apple, Orange Cranberry and Toasted Coconut and Pancake & Waffle Mixes and many more. The tertiary Effect included companies that used products of the secondary group of products.
However, some of these large recalls have yet to cause a single illness. The products are pulled off the shelves solely as preventive measures. This shows that most of the recalls were preventative and not necessarily as a result of the presence of dangerous organisms.

 

How do we Measure Success of FSMA?

FSMA is all about prevention and should transform the US system to a system that will prevent or significantly reduce foodborne illnesses. Therefore, FSMA success should result in a reduction in foodborne illnesses. However, it is too early to access success using this measure.  A reduction in the number of recalls might not be the best indicator of success.
Many of the FSMA activities that are being established, initially causes an increase in pathogens finding.  The more one looks for pathogens, including testing the environment extensively, the more one is likely to find them. Therefore, the decline in recalls is somewhat surprising.
It is very important to establish measuring systems that will allow us to access the true economic and safety impact of these new regulations.
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New Recalls: GreenCore USA Recalls Sandwiches due to Listeria; Vermont Livestock recalls Ground beef due to E. coli; Frozen Peas Recalled by Pinnacle Foods

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In the last couple of months, there were very few recalls due to microbial contamination. However, a couple of recalls were announced in the last few days.

GreenCore Recall of Sandwiches due to Listeria monocytogenes

On September 29, 2017, the FDA announced that GreenCore had recalled a variety of sandwich salads (egg salad sandwiches, ham salad sandwiches, and seafood) because Listeria monocytogenes (LM) was found after a routine inspection by the FDA at the Rhode Island plant environment. LM was not found in any of the products of the company.
The sandwiches were distributed to American Food and Vending, Hannaford Brothers, Target, and Turkey Hill in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire and New York.
The company did not receive any reports of illnesses, but there is a concern that there might be recalled products in customer refrigerators, because the use by date on the sandwiches ranges from October 2 to 19. The company said that the recall was “purely precautionary measure, as no finished products have been found to have Listeria present and no confirmed illnesses have been reported.”
As a result of the recall, GreenCore Company shares had fallen by 7% in London.  
GreenCore troubles with LM go way back to 2011 when the FDA inspectors found LM on food contact surfaces in their production facility in Newburyport, MA. In October 2012, a warning letter was sent to the company ordering them to clean up their operation and establish programs to prevent pathogens in the environment.
In November of 2016, GreenCore chicken Hummus sandwiches were recalled as part of the Sabra hummus recall.
 

Vermont Livestock recalls Ground Beef Contaminated with E. coli O157: H7 

On October 13, the US Food Service Inspection (FSIS) and the US Department of Agriculture announced the recall of around 133 pounds of ground beef products from Vermont Livestock because it might have been contaminated with E. coli O157: H7.
The FSIS was notified about an investigation of the illnesses of two children by E. coli O157: H7 on September 30, 2017.  One of the two children was hospitalized, and since both children have recovered. Working with the Vermont Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, identified the source of the infection as being cooked beef burgers served at Bread & Butter Farm event.
Using Traceback information showed that the beef for the burgers was supplied by Vermont Livestock Slaughter & Processing. In abundance of caution, the company is recalling the products. The recalled ground beef is no longer available in commerce. However, the FSIS and the company are concerned that some product may be frozen and in customers’ freezers. 

Pinnacle Foods recalls Frozen Sweet Peas Due to Listeria monocytogenes 

Birds Eye brand peas are being recalled by several grocery chains, such as Publix, due to positive samples for LM. However, the FDA had not issued a public notice. The recalled Birds Eye Baby Sweet Peas (13 oz. package) have“Best By” dates of July 5, 2019, and July 6, 2019. Approximately 25,000 cases of product are being recalled by Pinnacle Foods.  No illness has been reported as a result of this recall. However, there is a concern that customers have some products in their freezers.
 
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Improved Food Safety and Public Health by Using Whole Genome Sequence Analysis

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The Meeting

A public meeting is being hosted by the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) on Thursday and Friday, October 26 and 27, 2017. The purpose of the meeting is to protect consumers from foodborne illnesses in the USA and countries all over the world by laying the foundation for the use of whole-genome sequencing (WGS).

Why Whole-Genome Sequencing (WGS)

WGS analyses can determine the relationship between different bacterial isolates with higher resolution than other analytical methods, and can characterize genes and other features of bacterial genomes.
The FSIS intends to analyze and generate WGS data and use it as part of the decision-making in investigations of foodborne outbreaks, and share this data with Federal food safety partners.
The FSIS is currently considering WGS analysis as an important tool in the characterization of food pathogens. The method uses 1-10 million base units for each bacterium, almost the entire genomic sequence. WGS provides a sturdy estimate of the relationship between sequences, allowing for further classification of individual genes. WGS can reveal the bacterial genetic fingerprints and can show clues about antimicrobial resistance, genetic relationships, and key markers that help scientists respond more effectively to food contamination.
Another use of the WGS is to identify antimicrobial resistance genes to identify genes related to emerging resistance to beta-lactamase, colistin, linezolid and other critically essential antibiotics.
According to the FSIS, WGS is rapid, precise, cost-effective, and easy-to-use and can be applied universally to all foodborne pathogens.

The Database

The database GenomeTrakr was started by the FDA in 2012, as an international network of laboratories sequencing microbial foodborne pathogens and uploading the data to a common public database in real time. The data is stored at the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), can be accessed by researchers and public health officials.
 GenomeTrakr started with a pilot study of WGS-based surveillance for Listeria monocytogenes (Lm). Since its establishment GenomeTrakr and the use of WGS, more illness clusters were detected, and they were detected sooner, and in more cases the illness was linked to Lm food source.  The data from a study by Jackson et al., 2016 shows specific improvements that can be gained using WGS, as compared to the use of PFGE analyses. The most successful use of WGS is in foodborne disease surveillance. However, it requires coordination and collaboration to provide a global health benefit for every country that shares its data.
GenomeTrakr has already collected more than 142,000 sequenced strains. It made them available to anyone in the world. This undertaking demonstrates that this kind of large databases can be used to improve food safety in the USA and around the world.
 

The future

The FSIS claims that it intends to continue to upload all WGS data to the database and make it readily accessible to all food safety and public health partners and stakeholders.  The utilization of WGS will enhance resource allocation and decision-making by the FSIS. It expects to obtain greater efficiencies from what was learned from the pilot study of Lm, by improving laboratory workflows for bacterial characterization.
The FSIS and its partners are planning to use WGS in combination with traceback data and epidemiologic evidence to identify the sources of outbreaks more expeditiously. Preventive action based upon WGS has the potential of preventing foodborne diseases and may identify genes associated with virulence.
A meeting between the FDA and the Codex Alimentarius Commission took place recently in Geneva, discussing how to share WGS data internationally.  The FSIS and the FDA plan to expand the program in 2018, to identify such pathogens as salmonellacampylobacter and E. coli.

Transcripts

The transcript of the proceedings from the public meeting will be available after the meeting on the FSIS Web site.