Even blockchain technology might not have prevented the latest food safety drama.

With good intentions leading the way, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has manuevered itself into an unenviable position regarding the recent E. coli outbreak — and it brought leafy greens suppliers along for the ride.

In announcing its investigation, the CDC noted that the outbreak could be related to a set of illnesses in Canada, and officials there had pegged romaine as the source. 

However, the CDC stated it could not yet recommend avoiding a certain food.

Since then, Canadian officials have declared that outbreak over, while the CDC is still investigating illnesses in the U.S. 

As for the initial report by the CDC, my impression is that the agency was trying to be as fair as possible.

The CDC wants to inform people about the situation while being honest about the fact that there were still crucial questions it could not answer.

Instead, the announcement has some people wondering why the CDC did not reveal the outbreak earlier, and others wondering about the wisdom of doing so before the agency had any concrete information to share.

As one might expect, the nuance in the announcement was largely lost in translation, with numerous mainstream media reports describing the two outbreaks as one and warning people to avoid romaine. Consumer Reports also told people to beware.

Various restaurants stated they would stop carrying romaine just in case, even as produce industry associations asked the CDC to declare the outbreak over because the last U.S. illness reported began Dec. 8, meaning any contaminated product is likely long gone from refrigerators in homes or restaurants and from retail shelves.

Even though the CDC went public about the outbreak before it knew what caused it, some people — including U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn. — have loudly condemned the agency for not announcing it sooner. 

In other situations, food safety complaints have focused on how long it takes to trace back products and initiate recalls. Blockchain might eventually be a significant help in those areas, but in this circumstance investigators have yet to report a starting point for that process.

Barring a positive test for E. coli, the CDC is largely reliant on interviews about what people ate in the week or so before they got sick.

Maybe some consumers affected had logged their food intake for health reasons, or had kept receipts from the grocery store or restaurants — but most people would be hard-pressed to deliver an accurate, comprehensive list of their last 20 or so meals.

There are some exciting technologies on the horizon that may contribute greatly in the future to making food safety investigations faster and easier, but this latest U.S. outbreak underscores the difficult truth that suppliers will likely remain vulnerable in certain situations.

Ashley Nickle is a staff writer for The Packer. E-mail her at anickle@farmjournal.com.

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