E. Coli Outbreak Illustrates the Limits of US Food Traceability

Romaine lettuce
Wednesday, May 2, 2018

The recent cluster of E. coli contamination, which is linked to romaine lettuce and has sickened people in 22 states, has just caused its first fatality. We don't yet know the source of the infection. The outbreak demonstrates gaps in the systems used to track food pathways in the US. According to an article in ​Wired, compared to Europe and Japan, "the procedures that might make [the US] food supply more traceable have been caught in a tug of war between federal officials, who want to solve outbreaks more quickly, and growers and shippers, who are resistant to investing in technology they don’t think they need." Amy Kircher, director of the Food Protection and Defense Institute​, a Consortium member, is interviewed for the piece. She notes that "when there are records, they aren’t necessarily granular enough to be useful." Referring to a typical four-pack of tomatoes, Kircher explains that "'we assume those tomatoes come from the same source.' But because tomatoes from many farms get commingled at packing houses and then sorted for similarity of ripeness, size and color, that four-pack could contain tomatoes from four different farms." The article notes it's possible that blockchain – a "distributed, encrypted ledger that supports cryptocurrency such as Bitcoin​ – could also be used to build a record of every transaction that affects a piece of produce."