May 7, 2018

E. Coli Outbreak in Romaine Lettuce Highlights the Importance of Digital Food Safety

Written by Garret Weigel | Food Safety, Supply Chain

As you may have read in the news recently, an outbreak of Escherichia coli, more commonly referred to as E. coli, has affected states all across the nation. Most strains of E. coli are harmless, and actually provide a benefit to our gut, but there are some strains that can cause illness. Primarily transferred through fecal matter, E. coli can spread through manure, infecting both vegetables and meats alike. Close to 100,000 cases are reported annually in the United States, a number that may rise due to our increased consumption of raw produce over recent years.


E. Coli Outbreak Linked to Romaine Lettuce

Since mid-March, over 120 people across 25 states have fallen victim to an E. coli outbreak, specifically the E. coli strain O157, linked to romaine lettuce grown in the Yuma, Arizona region. Of those, 52 have been hospitalized. Unfortunately there has been 1 reported death, and 14 people developed hemolytic uremic syndrome, a type of kidney failure.

The first case of illness is thought to have happened around March 13, with new cases being identified as late as April 20. Cases can take upwards of two to three weeks to be confirmed, leaving the possibility that more people will become sick.

Proactive methods of preventing a foodborne illness are just one piece of the puzzle: identifying the source of a contamination is a necessary step in preventing the illness from infecting more people. This can prove to be challenging, as many processes in food production and the supply chain are not digitized. Manual logging can lead to inaccurate or incomplete data, in addition to a lack of vital information that can help in an investigation.

The Hunt for the Food Contamination Source

Public health investigators were tasked with discovering the source(s) of the contaminated romaine lettuce as a reactive measure to the initial news of the outbreak. They turned to PulseNet, a national laboratory network that connects foodborne illness cases, to help in their search. This network was pivotal in connecting seemingly unrelated cases across the United States. Despite the valuable information the investigators received from PulseNet, they were unable to identify any specific growers, packers or distributors.

After additional investigation, the FDA identified Harrison Farms as the sole source of the lettuce that sickened multiple people in an Alaska correctional facility. As of this writing, they have not been able to identify the source of the contamination as it relates to the supply chain.

The growing season in the Yuma region is at its end, which means farms in the area are no longer growing lettuce. The tainted romaine lettuce was grown and harvested in mid-March, which means any remaining samples have since passed their shelf life. This further complicates the hunt for the source. Public health investigators use DNA fingerprinting to identify outbreaks, which requires sampling of the contaminated lettuce.

As recommended by the CDC, you should not consume romaine lettuce that is from the Yuma, Arizona growing region. You should dispose of any romaine lettuce if you cannot confirm where it was grown.


Improving Traceability With Digital Food Safety

Outbreaks such as this highlight the importance of a comprehensive food safety solution that is digitized. Packaging labels will often exclude information on the region in which a product was grown. On top of that, a lack of packaging altogether makes identifying the growing source challenging, leading to more time spent connecting the dots.

If a full distributed ledger was in place, the FDA could trace the source of contamination in seconds and not weeks. Digitizing supply chain management for food processing would limit health concerns and impact to businesses, leading to more effective food safety measures.

Utilizing blockchain technologies would also provide immense value. Each step of the food process chain is recorded, including the originating farm, product temperature ranges, routes taken to deliver the product, and more. Once the information has been collected and there is a consensus on the data, it becomes a permanent record. This would give complete visibility into the entire supply chain – giving new meaning to the term “from farm to fork.”


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