The fresh produce industry needs to take back traceback.
Some companies have already moved in this direction, participating in the Produce Traceability Initiative or the IBM blockchain pilot, but the past six months — with two outbreaks ascribed to a vegetable rather than a company — have made it clear everyone needs to get on board.
Expecting quick investigation results from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration is not practical. I have no doubt the people there are competent and working diligently to identify a source in the current E. coli outbreak, which has sickened 84 people, but investigators face a monumental task.
Illnesses have been reported in 19 states, meaning the FDA — if it knows at which restaurants sick people ate or from which stores they bought Arizona romaine — could have at least 19 points from which to begin traceback, at least 19 supply chains to be defined and examined.
This also brings up a good question for the FDA: In such a broad landscape, what constitutes enough of a pattern to draw a conclusion?
In any case, while investigators are slogging through the process of identifying companies and perusing records — and repeating those steps as they move toward finding a specific field where contamination occurred — consumers wonder about the safety of their produce.
Lost sales can be a cost.
Time spent answering questions from customers and consumers can be a cost.
Perhaps most importantly, the chipping away of consumer confidence can be a cost.
Implementing a widespread traceability system would also come with a price tag, no doubt, but doing so would be a prudent investment — protecting against all those aforementioned costs, protecting the reputation of businesses, and helping protect public health as well.
Adoption of PTI across the industry might not make traceback seamless for the FDA, but the United Fresh Produce Association does expect it would meaningfully increase the speed with which the FDA could establish links between companies, said vice president of food safety and technology Jennifer McEntire.
There is not an official registry that shows how many companies have implemented PTI, but the estimate is that about 60% of fresh produce cases are labeled, with several major retailers and foodservice chains requiring it, McEntire said.
Traceability is only a part of the broader food safety conversation — certainly prevention is always the ultimate goal — but it is in the best interests of all companies to have a system in which unsafe food can be quickly identified and removed, rather than one in which tons of safe produce has to be tossed just in case.
If you are not already exploring traceability options, I would encourage you to start asking questions. Reach out to United Fresh or the Produce Marketing Association or to people at companies like Dole and Driscoll’s that are participating in the IBM blockchain pilot.
The fresh produce industry has to step up — how outbreaks are handled is too important an issue to leave it to someone else to figure out.
Ashley Nickle is a staff writer for The Packer. E-mail her at email@example.com.