The Food and Drug Administration continues to search for the source of romaine at the heart of a deadly E. coli outbreak.
Cases have been reported in 25 states, and 121 people have been sickened, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
One death has been reported from California.
The outbreak is now the largest of its kind since spinach sickened more than 200 people in 2006.
Eight of the 121 cases have been attributed to whole head romaine from Yuma-based Harrison Farms, which supplied an Alaskan prison that reported illnesses, but the FDA says the supply chain that led to that facility does not explain the nationwide outbreak.
The agency is investigating multiple distribution channels.
Consumer demand for romaine has “sharply declined” due to the outbreak, according to the latest shipping point trends report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The Agricultural Marketing Service noted slow trading in the Salinas-Watsonville, Oxnard and Santa Maria areas.
F.o.b. prices for cartons of 12 three-count packages of hearts of romaine from Salinas-Watsonville were mostly $10.35-$11.65 on May 2, according to the USDA. On the same date in 2017, prices were mostly $14.25-16.65.
F.o.b. prices for 24-count cartons of romaine from Salinas-Watsonville were mostly $7.35-8.65, compared to mostly $14.50-16.45 in 2017.
The FDA has cited the cumbersome process of poring over shipping and receiving documents as the reason that traceback of the chopped romaine is taking more time than people might expect.
“Under (the Food Safety Modernization Act), it’s a one step forward, one step back rule, and so trying to find all those records, whether they be digital records or written records or handwritten records is extremely tough,” Stic Harris, director of the coordinated outbreak response and evaluation network of the FDA, said in a media conference call April 27.
“I think there’s a perception that, when we do traceback, that each leg is just a direct line down, and in this case you’re looking more at a web,” Harris said. “Ideally we’d love to get those mapped out and try and find convergence some place to try and identify that specific cause ... We’re just not there yet, and it’s entirely possible we may not get there — oftentimes we don’t — but we’re continuing to work on it.”
About 60% of produce cases have Produce Traceability Initiative labels, according to the United Fresh Produce Association.
It is expected that such labels, which carry a lot number, barcode and other information, enable faster traceback, though the FDA did not respond to a question about whether that has been the experience of the agency.
Some produce companies have implemented the system proactively, while others have done so at the request of buyers like Walmart and Whole Foods, said Ed Treacy, vice president of supply chain efficiencies for the Produce Marketing Association.
Other companies have not seen the need for them to implement the system yet. There is certainly some initial effort for a company to figure out where and how it will print and apply the labels, but the cost is not prohibitive, Treacy said.
For many operations that have gotten on board with PTI, the investment has been well worth it.
“We’ve seen (companies) who pack out of Mexico and the U.S., depending on the season, having two sets of inventory of empty cartons because the country of origin was printed on the box,” Treacy said. “Well if it’s on the label, you can go down to one inventory, use the same box, doesn’t matter what country. You’re going to get efficiencies in the amount of inventory you have of empty boxes and the cost to purchase those boxes because they’ll be less ink on them.”
Companies have also used PTI to help with quality control. One organization used different lot numbers to correspond to different picking crews and started posting rejection results for each group, and competition spurred improvement.
“Their claims went from over 5% to well below 1% and have never gone back above that because now there’s a way to differentiate and look at crew number one versus two versus three,” Treacy said.
If mock recalls conducted as part of FSMA implementation are any indication, PTI labels should be helpful in traceback as well, Treacy said.
During a scenario in which every company involved was PTI compliant, traceback took less than 24 hours. In another scenario that was run, for which not all companies were PTI compliant, traceback took more than seven days.
“It was really because the one person who knew where all the records were kept wasn’t there that day because they didn’t know when we were going to do the recall,” Treacy said. “They had to wait until the person got back from vacation, and that’s a reality.”
It is too soon to say whether two outbreaks in six months, both attributed to a vegetable instead of a specific farm or brand, will prompt more adoption of PTI, Treacy said. Something else coming up could move the needle, however.
Blockchain pilots are currently going on with Walmart, Kroger and Wegmans, and the blockchain systems in use are built on PTI, Treacy said.
As companies realize the value of blockchain, more suppliers may implement PTI so they can be part of that system.