Once again, consumers across the United States are being directed to suspend purchases of romaine lettuce, and now, salad kits that contain romaine lettuce, after evidence on a new strain of E.coli related contamination.
Last month, an outbreak that sickened more than 100 people across 23 U.S. states was linked to romaine lettuce that might have been grown in the Salinas Valley region of California. This week, regulator announced an outbreak involving certain salad kits that included romaine lettuce that has reportedly sickened eight people among 3 states.
In its reporting of the latest outbreak, The Wall Street Journal noted that food regulators have yet to pinpoint all of the sources of previous outbreaks that occurred earlier this year, as well as in 2018. Now, the current outbreak is added to the list. Regulators have made some progress in the use of DNA sequencing and tracing methods to identify actual lettuce lots.
This past year, growers in Arizona and California have reportedly increased buffer zones between produce growing fields and livestock farms to avoid typical instances of contamination. Yet, headlines of romaine lettuce contamination continue to reverberate across news and social media.
Advanced Technology and the Importance of a Clear Problem Statement
In a prior Supply Chain Matters blog published in March of this year, this Editor highlighted the regulatory investigations related to the 2018 romaine lettuce contamination and how food regulators continued to stress the critical importance of point-of-purchase item level identification and subsequent full supply chain traceability of leafy vegetables from farm to fork.
In 2018, FDA investigations pointed to the complexity of the challenge: concluding that in contamination incidents, contaminated romaine lettuce may have been grown on multiple farms. There was an important sentence that we highlighted:
“An alternative explanation for the lack of traceback convergence to a single farm may be due to ill consumers having multiple romaine lettuce exposures and limited recollection of exposures and brands that ate.”
The FDA had further reinforced that outbreaks involving leafy greens are indeed challenging to investigate because of both the short shelf life of the product, the complex supply chain involving multiple distribution handoffs, and the general lack of specific labeling information as to farm origin. Further encouraged was the use of advanced state-of-the-art technology to assure quick, accurate and easy access to key data elements from farm to fork when an outbreak or recall is evident.
In my March commentary I noted that some readers would immediately jump to Blockchain as the most obvious technology to address such food safety concerns:
Some readers may immediately jump to Blockchain as the most obvious technology that can address such food safety concerns related to leafy greens. Such a response likely stems from awareness to food retailer Walmart’s existing mandate to have all of its lettuce suppliers to be compliant with a blockchain enabled process by the Fall of 2019. Mandates from Walmart are common occurrence- who can forget those RFID implementation mandates directed at item-level traceability several years ago. From our lens, that initiative was not successful because of a:
- Lack of a well-defined and understood problem statement
- Misunderstandings of the cost and scale of the technology solution
- Realization that mandates without providing shared supplier monetary or resource assistance do not make a wide scale technology deployment successful.
My argument was that Blockchain was not the sole answer, rather a combination of technologies related to the monitoring of farming practices, visible item-level identity for each head of lettuce that consumers can read and recall and finally overcoming the challenge of the very low margins afforded in the growing and distribution of produce to help defray the cost of such technologies.
We closed our March commentary with the following takeaway:
The overall benefits for deployment of advanced technology should be translated to be not for any one stakeholder but for all stakeholders. Mandates are a result of overt buyer influence, Shared benefits are a result of insightful thinking and positive collaborations among teams on how to best solve a vexing problem with an open mind and a clear, unbiased lens.
As we approach the close of 2019, there is yet another nationwide contamination outbreak specifically involving romaine lettuce and regulators are scrambling to determine specific origin and root cause, even though no conclusions could be garnered in incidents during the prior three years. The timing could not be worse given all of the increased holiday events that feature food, including certain salads.
Consumers such as our family have run out of patience: no more consumption or purchase of romaine lettuce until a comprehensive, industry-wide set of actions are adopted and proven to be effective. When we shop in a grocery or food store, we look for item-level visibility as to where lettuce and/or produce was grown and shelf-life expiration, but alas we are often and frequently disappointed.
To my friends in the technology and industry community, let’s stop the hyping of Blockchain as the solution to all levels of supply chain trust and traceability. Again, this commentary is not about knocking any one advanced technology applicable to solving significant supply chain challenges.
Instead, advanced technology providers and systems integrators need to get back to the basics of understanding the full extent of individual or industry supply chain challenges needing to be addressed for comprehensive food safety. Let’s become grounded to proven principle that definition of business problem and stakeholder needs comes first, followed by the determination of technology or technologies that are most appropriate to address the challenge.
Blockchain will indeed play an instrumental role in addressing supply chain wide traceability and trust, but certain technical, scalability and deployment cost limitations must be further addressed.
In the specific case of leafy greens and produce, industry stakeholders may well learn another painful lesson that as we approach a new decade, consumers question why this same and potentially deadly problem continues year after year.
It is long overdue for food growers, distributors, retailers and indeed their advanced technology partners to come together and solve arguably one of the most vexing problems under the umbrella of food safety- leafy greens supply and distribution networks. At a minimum, item-level brand and origin visibility is mandatory, followed by item-level traceability.
On our part, we pledge to not provide added visibility to more press releases touting Blockchain’s or any other advanced technology’s promise of the solution to food safety. We instead seek clear evidence that certain teams have figured out the overall problem, and have a meaningful solution backed by results.
Hopefully, that will be before this Editor retires. In the meantime, I will be abstaining from eating romaine lettuce originating from U.S. food supply chains. The exception will be romaine lettuce grown in our backyard garden, where the growing conditions and environment are known, and the supply network amounts to the roughly 25 steps to our kitchen.
© Copyright 2019, The Ferrari Consulting and Research Group and the Supply Chain Matters® blog. All rights reserved.