The E. coli OutbreakEarlier we reported that an E. coli O157:H7 outbreak in the US was suspected of being related to an outbreak in Canada that had been linked to romaine lettuce. From November 15 to December 17 illnesses in 13 states were reported. Five people have been hospitalized, two have developed hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), and one person died. The Canadian Health Authorities reported on 41 cases of illnesses in 5 Eastern states (Ontario (8), Quebec (14), New Brunswick (5), Nova Scotia (1), and Newfoundland and Labrador (13)) attributed to E. coli O157:H7 in romaine lettuce. Seventeen individuals have been hospitalized. One individual died. As a result of their investigation, the Canadian Health authorities recommended the people in the Eastern provinces to refrain from eating romaine lettuce. The CDC reported that the E. coli causing the illnesses in both countries was genetically closely related. This closeness implies that the illnesses are sharing a common source of infection. However, the CDC has not yet identified the source of the US infection. In the U.S. there is no recall of romaine lettuce or a recommendation to stop its consumption. In a statement Brittany Behm, MPH, a CDC spokeswoman said in an email that “there is not enough epidemiologic or traceback evidence at this time to indicate a specific source of illnesses in the United States. Therefore, CDC cannot recommend that U.S. residents avoid a particular food.” The CDC believes that the evidence collected to date does not have sufficient convincing information linking the lettuce to the illnesses. “We strive to be fast and right. … We wish we knew more and we’re working hard to get there. But we don’t have enough evidence yet,” said Wiliams, chief of the CDC’s Outbreak Response and Prevention Branch. He also said that there was no guarantee that in the future, the CDC and FDA would be able to identify the exact source of the outbreak.
Consumer Report RecommendationThe consumer Report magazine has taken an extreme step advising the public to stop the consumption of any romaine lettuce until there is a clarification of the situation.
“Even though we can’t say with 100 percent certainty that romaine lettuce is the cause of the E. coli outbreak in the U.S., a greater degree of caution is appropriate given that lettuce is almost always consumed raw,” said James Rogers, the Consumer Report’s director of food safety and research. Jean Halloran, the director of food policy initiatives at Consumers Union, said:” Better to avoid romaine lettuce for now.” “Given the size of the outbreak and the severity of the risk, which is worse for elderly people and children, the magazine felt it was the right decision,”. Bill Marler, a Seattle-based attorney specializing in food safety cases noted that “Identifying the source of a foodborne illness outbreak can be a delicate balance between warning consumers of public health risks and unduly tainting industries or specific businesses without sufficient evidence.” However, he supports the Consumer Report decision to advise people not to consume romaine lettuce. The consumer Report recommendation was intensely covered by the many TV outlets and in many of the papers.
“To Recall or Not” and Their ConsequencesThe Office of Inspector General (OIG) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued a recent report concluding that the current recall process used by the FDA can be too slow putting consumers at risk. In response to the report, the FDA is planning to announce a new strategic plan in place to outline actions to improve the recall management. A faster process if clearly needed. With the requirement to definitively decide the source of the outbreak, the investigation sometimes takes a very long time, and meanwhile, the products are being consumed, and people get ill. The heavily publicized recommendation by the Consumer Report will certainly cause many good lettuces to be disposed of. Growers of perfectly health romaine lettuce will suffer. Currently, all romaine lettuce is presumed guilty of contamination. A better system should be put in place to make the identification of contaminated produce easier. On Jan. 6, the United Fresh Produce Association e-mailed members, stressing that the last U.S. case was reported Dec. 8; the last case in Canada was Dec. 12. “This fact makes it very unlikely — even if the outbreak is tied to romaine —that any affected product remains in marketing channels,” therefore in their opinion the outbreak is over. However, Bill Marler wrote “I certainly understand that many romaine lettuce growers would like the CDC to call the “outbreak over” since lettuce is perishable. Since neither Canada nor the US has been able to confirm where the contamination occurred – on the farm, in processing, in transit – I think I agree with the Canadian and Consumer Reports approach – “When in doubt, throw it out.”
Is Blockchain the SolutionAs reported earlier Blockchain is a decentralized, shared log of data maintained on a network of computers. It is an exciting new technology that can revolutionize food safety and offer much faster traceability of food products including produce.
According to Fortune magazine Viant and the World Wild Fund for Nature, using blockchain technology, provided a way to verify the fish journey from the ocean to the plate. The Tuna fish is tagged with a QR code (two-dimensional barcode) supplied by Viant. The fish is logged into the blockchain system, and its progress is monitored throughout the chain. It is conceivable that in the future lettuce can be tagged with a QR barcode and be followed to the markets. As a result, any outbreak will be easier to trace back to the farm of origin.
Twenty-three frozen 12 or 20 count biscuits packs of T. Marzetti biscuit products are being recalled, including: Southern Home Old Fashioned Buttermilk Style Biscuits, Marshall’s and Shur Fine Old Fashioned Southern Style Biscuits, Shur Fine Old Fashioned, Buttermilk Biscuits, Valu Time, Food Club, SE Grocers, Lowes Foods, Laura Lynn, and Southern Home Southern Style Biscuits; Valu Time Buttermilk Style Biscuits, Food Lion Homestyle Buttermilk Biscuits, Food Club, SE Grocers, Piggly Wiggly, Lowes Foods, Premium Pick 5, Morning Fresh Farms, Laura Lynn, and Southern Home Buttermilk Biscuits, and Piggly Wiggly Homestyle Biscuits. The products were distributed in the following states: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia. Food Safety News reports that Marshall’s Old Fashioned Southern Style Biscuits have also been recalled in California. The frozen biscuits are not ready-to-eat products and need to be baked before consumption. Typically the baking instructions call the baking of the product at 4000F for 20 minutes. The internal biscuit temperature should reach 2000F (930C) enough to kill the organism if present. However, since undercooking can occur, there might be a slight risk, and as a result, Marzetti had decided to recall the product. Interestingly, this recall was intensely covered by the general media, including many TV stations and newspapers, disproportionate to the risk it poses.
The CDC is performing whole genome sequencing on samples of bacteria making people sick, from the U.S. cases to obtain information about the possible relationship between the US cases and the Canadian outbreak. The preliminary testing results “show the type of E. coli making people sick in both countries is closely related genetically, meaning the ill people are more likely to share a common source of infection.” Illness onset dates in the U.S. range from Nov. 15 to Dec. 8. In Canada, the Public Health Agency of Canada reports illnesses started in November and ended in early December. The Canadian agency added one more case on Dec. 28, bringing the total to 41 illnesses from five eastern provinces. One person has died as a result of the E. coli outbreak, according to the agency. In the U.S., state and local health officials are interviewing sick people to document what they consumed before the outbreak began. That process is ongoing, and interviews focus on all foods, not just romaine and other leafy greens, according to the CDC. State and local authorities are interviewing sick people to see what they ate in the week before they became ill. Because a source of the US infections hasn’t been identified, the CDC said it is unable to recommend if US residents should avoid a particular food. “This investigation is ongoing, and more information will be released as it becomes available,” the CDC press release said.
What Is BlockchainThe 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 BlockchainFortune 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 SafetyFood 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 FoodsBlockchain 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 FraudIn 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.
HurdlesTechnology 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.
SummaryBlockchain 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.
- 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.