The recent episode of recalled tomatoes provides yet more compelling lessons related to supply chain risk in the most vulnerable of supply chains, that being food related.  An outbreak of Salmonella type illness began to occur as early as April of this year. On June 7, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warned consumers against eating certain types of raw tomatoes, suspected of carrying the virulent Saintpaul strain of salmonella. The FDA alerted consumers to avoid eating certain raw tomatoes- red plum, red Roma and round red tomatoes, while federal agencies searched for the root cause of this outbreak.  Food chains and restaurants reacted to the ban by removing these products from store shelves and menu’s often including many more sources to insure that they would not be sued by consumers.  Meanwhile, tomato growers in Florida, California, and Mexico had significant trouble selling their crops, with Florida growers alone claiming up to $100 million in losses.

By mid-July, the U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC), and the FDA were still attempting to determine a source of this outbreak, and had determined that ill persons were more likely to have recently consumed raw tomatoes, fresh jalapeno peppers, and fresh cilantro, since these items were commonly, though not always, consumed together. No doubt we all tend to like Mexican style cuisine. By the end of July, the CDC had definitively found the smoking gun, tracing the outbreak to peppers grown on a farm in Mexico.  Earlier, the FDA had traced a contaminated jalapeno pepper to this same farm, indicating the source to be the irrigation water supplying this farm.  Both agencies issued a statement that consumers should not eat jalapeno and Serrano peppers imported from Mexico.

As a result of this episode, approximately 1300 people suffered illness and U.S. tomato growers had incurred an estimated $300 million in losses.  While federal officials conceded that no single contaminated tomato was ever found, they refused to completely clear tomatoes as another source for this outbreak, since tomatoes originated from this same identified farm in Mexico.

While politicians from the effected agricultural states will no doubt add more fodder and blame to the debate, the obvious challenge for the food and produce industry is to insure consumers that there is adequate track-back traceability as well as consistent quality in all forms of supply, be it domestic or foreign. It seems to me that if any clear lessons that can be learned from this incident, they should relate to the following:

  • You cannot assume that foreign sourced food has the equivalent quality standards as that of the U.S., unless you actually have processes in place that insure consistent quality. Even if you do test, common testing methods will not uncover scrupulous suppliers, as was brought out in my previous posts  involving the recall of the life-saving drug heparin.
  • The crossing of borders adds more challenges to traceability and accountability among governmental regulatory agencies, and each of these incidents continually provides evidence that governmental agencies are not adequately funded or staffed to be able to monitor today’s volume of cross-border movements.
  • In this particular case of fresh produce, product traceability is an even more complex problem due to a lack of consistent labeling and traceability tools. As pointed out in a recent New York Times article, This particular industry needs to move beyond weak tracing capabilities, and track sources of potential outbreaks in a much quicker and more efficient manner.

It would seem to me that the food supply chain is overdue in investment in cost-effective quality processes and supporting technology that will address these problems and insure consumers that their food supply remains safe. Instead of pleading with members of Congress to have taxpayers compensate growers for losses, heal thy own house. This responsibility lies with the growers as well as the distributors and brand owners. The use of bar coding and RFID tracking tools at the case level can at least provide traceability to source farms and distribution points.  Remote quality monitoring is another obvious need.

Continued incidents of tainted lettuce, spinach, peanut butter, seafood, and now peppers and tomatoes should be a call to action to address supply chain risk factors among food producers and all other participants of the food supply chain.  I don’t know about all of you, but I will continue to rely on my home garden as the most controlled source of my tomatoes, lettuce and peppers.

 Bob Ferrari