“We will assess how these technologies could create a more digital, transparent, and safer food system while also addressing consumer demands for quick access to information about where their foods come from, how they’re produced, and if the food is the subject of an ongoing recall,” the commissioners said in their statement.
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Explore This IssueFebruary/March 2020
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Bryan Hitchcock, senior director of Food Chain and executive director of the Institute of Food Technologists’ Global Food Traceability Center in Chicago, says he’s already seeing consumer preferences drive some of the new traceability goals. “We’re seeing a lot more interest and awareness by consumers of how food is manufactured, its traceability, and chain of custody,” he says. “There’s a disruption in the distribution channels in how food is delivered and consumed. Sometimes delivery is by bicycle. This is all causing people to rethink supply chains.”
Learning From the Past
Before producers, distributors, and retailers can move too far ahead with technology, issues that are holding back progress must be addressed. Those include many parts of the supply chain still using paper records and other parts simply not inputting data that would be useful during recalls.
Dr. McEntire says that the Produce Traceability Initiative has been in use for a decade, but not everyone uses it on labels. This industry-led initiative aims to implement traceability across the entire produce supply chain by using common industry standards such as the GS1 US barcode and electronic storage and retrieval of that data. The GS1 US barcode includes the brand owner, lot number, and processing date for the produce. “One of the long-standing challenges is getting owners in the supply chain to capture that information, which remains on the box—but the box gets thrown away,” she says.
Yiannas, who formerly was vice president of food safety at Walmart, outlined some of the challenges of traceback in a statement last December about the various romaine lettuce recalls in 2018 and 2019. Calling traceback investigations “resource and time-intensive,” he said they cannot begin until someone reports being ill. “Once the initial evidence is laid out, a traceback investigation includes investigating retail establishments, suppliers and distributors and working our way back to the farm or farms that may have grown the lettuce that ended up in consumers’ meals and homes,” he wrote. “It’s a labor-intensive task requiring collecting and evaluating thousands of records while also trying to accurately document how the contaminated lettuce moved through the food supply chain to grocery stores, restaurants, and other locations where it was sold or served.” But because of the expansive nature of the romaine lettuce E. coli outbreaks, “our investigation remains a complicated work in progress, and it is too soon to draw definitive conclusions,” he added.
What has helped FDA make progress in its investigations to detect and even link cases of foodborne illness are whole genome sequencing DNA-fingerprinting technology, coordination among federal and state agencies, and the voluntary adoption by many companies of best-practice labels.
The labeling is one change that was made in the past few months, spearheaded by a group of major grocery companies, Dr. McEntire says. The Leafy Greens Safety Group comprises Walmart, Kroger, Costco, Wegmans, and Yum! Brands.
Last October the group endorsed the recommendations of the Romaine Task Force, which itself was formed by United Fresh and the Produce Marketing Association at FDA’s request following the November 2018 E. coli outbreak in romaine lettuce that sickened 62 people and sent 25 to the hospital. That outbreak followed one of the largest and most deadly romaine E. coli outbreaks in the spring of 2018 that resulted in 210 cases of sickness across 36 states, five deaths, and 96 hospitalizations, according to CDC. There also was an outbreak around Thanksgiving of 2019.