If the April 2018 E. coli outbreak has taught us anything, it's that we are still a ways away from properly tracking our food from source to plate.
With 98 people infected across 22 states, this foodborne epidemic is among the worst in the past decade. It's left the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) scratching their heads, attempting to identify the initial point of convergence for where everything went wrong. And it's a food safety mishap that might have been entirely preventable with the proper supply-chain technology in place.
The leading theory for where the initial E. coli contamination took place traces the convergence origin back to Harrison Farms of Yuma, Az. We only know this much because of a notably condensed grouping of infections that occurred in a correctional facility in Nome, Alaska. Within a relatively short timespan, eight inmates of this facility fell ill with similar symptoms that were all linked to a particularly harmful strain of E. coli known as 0157:H7.
After some due diligence and extensive laboratory efforts, the CDC managed to identify the culprit of this seemingly isolated outbreak as whole heads of romaine lettuce sourced from the Harrison Farms. At this point, both the CDC and FDA must have felt somewhat relieved and quickly sent out a nation-wide recommendation to stop all consumption of romaine lettuce from the Yuma, Arizona area. The only problem is they still have no clear idea as to how this romaine was contaminated and how the other 90 cases of E. coli across the additional 21 states could have happened.
The point is, it's relatively easy to trace contamination along hyper-specific supply chains when the affected individuals are all condensed in a highly controlled area such as a correctional facility. The CDC simply had to test all incoming food products to the facility to determine the romaine lettuce as the contaminated lot. Their investigation was made even easier because the romaine was delivered in whole heads, rather than mixed lettuce packages, as is often the case across American food supply networks.
In essence, the CDC and FDA were bittersweetly lucky with how easily everything fell into place during this branch of their larger nationwide investigation. Unfortunately, they haven't been as fortuitous with their attempts to determine the ultimate point of convergence and the causes of the outbreaks in the other regions across the nation. For now, the best they can do is tell people to avoid all romaine lettuce until they locate the real issue.
Of course, this will lead to hundreds of thousands of dollars of food to be wasted this season. With no clear explanation for the outbreak, farmers, restaurants, and grocers will be forced to throw out all romaine or risk causing more illness. Frightened consumers will likely start to avoid all forms of lettuce in order to be extra cautious. And the end result will be ecologically damaging food waste, economically detrimental lost profits, and a decrease in trust between consumers and food industry businesses.
The number of foodborne illness outbreaks in America is grotesquely high. The CDC estimates that 48 million people get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and over 3,000 die from foodborne illnesses each year in the United States. And that's just the average.
Those numbers could either seem small or overwhelming depending on who's looking at them, but regardless of their size, they are entirely preventable. We could be doing so much more to track our food from farm to table. We could be using state of the art technology to maximize food industry transparency. We could ensure that all food items are properly tracked through decentralized networks. And we could make the entire process of food consumption a much safer and better understood place for all members of the food supply chain, from growers to consumers.
Blockchain technology offers something of a silver spoon to the food and agricultural industry. Sure, many farmers and agriculturalists are resistant to new, expensive, or government initiated technological advances. Fortunately, blockchain technology can be implemented into existing supply-chain networks at a low cost and would undoubtedly benefit both government regulators and industry professionals equally.
Here's how it would work. At the moment, blockchain essentially includes two primary technological entities: the decentralized ledger and smart contracts. While smart contracts can ensure better business dealing amongst supply chain participants, the decentralized ledger is the real solution to our food safety issues.
With the decentralized ledger, all food products would be registered and tracked along the entire supply chain and no single person or company would be able to manipulate the recorded data. All supply chain participants can see the food products travel along the supply chain while all interactions and exchanges are registered on the decentralized ledger, which is openly viewable to all members of the network.
So we could ostensibly see the entire life cycle of a head of romaine lettuce from the day its seeds were planted to the time of harvest to the ultimate purchase by the final consumer. Because all interactions and exchanges that take place regarding this head of romaine would be immutably recorded on the decentralized ledger, we would also have complete transparent insight into any points of contamination or corruption. We would know exactly who touched the romaine and at what point in its supply chain it became infected with E. coli.
When we open up food supply chains to this type of transparency, we are providing an unprecedented level of safety and control to these networks. Growers can ensure their produce is properly handled, manufacturers and distributors can better understand where their products are coming from and where they are going, and consumers can have complete insight into the entire life cycle of their food. Farm-to-table is only a measly fad until we implement real technologically savvy measures to better track our food from source to consumption.
Robert McNulty is the CEO and Co-founder of SupplyBloc, Inc. Formerly CEO and founder of Home Club and Shopping.com., McNulty is an accomplished entrepreneur with over 35 years of significant experience in specialty retail, eCommerce, branded consumer products, retail start-ups and developing new concepts and technology platforms for utilization in the retail industry.