Monday, August 13, 2018

Lessons About Traceability From The Recent Romaine Lettuce Food-borne Illness Outbreaks

It has been said that everything old is new again. This certainly rings true for the produce industry as 2018 has already seen two significant outbreaks E.coli 0157:H7 in Romaine Lettuce, bringing us full circle back to similar events with E.coli in spinach in 2006.

For many of us, these recent outbreaks are disheartening, because we have actively working on produce traceability solutions since 2007. That is when leading retailers, growers, and the PMA, CPMA, and United Fresh formed the task force that led to the Produce Traceability Initiative (PTI). The PTI originally had ambitions that every case of produce would have traceability labels by 2012, yet in 2018 best estimates are that approximately half of produce cases in the US have GS1 128 traceability labels on them. Originally driven primarily by Walmart’s request for produce suppliers to have traceability labels beginning in January of 2014, we are now seeing increased traceability labeling requirements by large restaurant chains wanting to protect their customers and brands.

So why don’t we have better traceability in 2018? The short answer is we do, but if 50% of the product is labeled we still have a ways to go. According to Angela Fernandez, Vice President of GS1 US Retail Grocery and Food Service Industries, in a guest article published by Southwest Produce Weekly it comes down to two things:

  1. Smaller supplier perceiving the implementation costs to be too high
  2. Many in the produce industry believe their internal systems are “good enough”

The good news is that scalable traceability systems are available today, some at costs of under $10,000, some higher depending on the needs and size of the grower. The bigger challenge is that while internal systems may be good enough for the grower, they don’t provide the visibility needed across the supply chain.

In my opinion, what we have learned is as long as traceability is voluntary we will continue to see large foodborne illness outbreaks, which unfortunately means additional deaths and illness. On May 24th nine consumer groups sent a letter to the FDA Commissioner, Scott Gottlieb, urging the FDA to propose requirements for “comprehensive and rapid traceability of produce” within six months. With the Canadian Food Inspection Agency's (CFIA) recent release of the Safe Food for Canadians Regulations (SFCR) that include traceability requirements, it is inevitable that food traceability in the US will also be moving from voluntary to a federal requirement in the next few years. In addition to protecting consumers, this should help farmers limit the scope and cost when their product is implicated in a foodborne illness outbreak.

About the author Todd Baggett:
Todd is the President and CEO of RedLine Solutions; a company that provides produce  traceability and inventory solutions. He is the author of “Produce Traceability for Dummies”, and has served as the Co-Chair of the PTI Technical Working Group since 2011.

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