This group of five companies came together to support the Romaine Task Force recommendations on traceability, boost their own company’s traceability, and work with the supply chain to improve the capture of data for traceback, Dr. McEntire says. One result from the task force is that the group initiated labels that carry the origin location of romaine lettuce—for example, Yuma or Salinas, two areas of California that produce romaine. And while Dr. McEntire says more granular information such as the barcode that can track products to the individual grower and field is needed for traceability, the regions on labels can help consumers, including herself. “During the Thanksgiving 2018 E. coli outbreak in romaine lettuce, FDA said don’t eat any romaine lettuce. But [in the 2019 outbreak, FDA] knew it was OK to eat romaine from Yuma, but not from Salinas,” she says. “I had romaine hearts in my refrigerator that had a sticker saying they were from Salinas and thus were subject to the alert.”
You Might Also Like
Explore This IssueFebruary/March 2020
Also By This Author
Dr. McEntire says a lot of data is available that companies don’t use, but the collaboration of the five major produce retailers could change that. “The five companies are influential and have peer pressure. And FDA is increasingly vocal about the challenges they face when investigating outbreaks,” she adds.
Yiannas wrote that the labeling practices and technology-enabled traceability now in use by some companies “help to target consumer advice to a defined growing region, compared to [2018’s] advisory, which was to avoid romaine lettuce nationwide regardless of where it was grown.”
Even if there is an advisory and not a recall, the product can’t be sold and needs to be discarded. “There are economic consequences for everyone in the supply chain,” says Dr. McEntire.
Bhatt of Walmart is eager to push ahead with new technologies that improve transparency and traceability throughout the retailer’s extensive supply chain. “I refuse to accept these continuous outbreaks with romaine lettuce in the last few years as the new norm,” he says. “The industry and agencies don’t want that to become the new normal. So, what can we do to push industry to do better to protect customers? I believe they’re going to embrace technology.”
He said Walmart wants to protect customers from outbreaks and retain their trust by being more proactive and less reactive. One of its strategies is using blockchain technology, which uses blocks of information stored in a shared database. Blockchain technology for traceability is available from companies including IBM, Hyperledger Fabric, and FoodLogiQ Connect. “We looked at several technologies, including traditional traceback,” Bhatt says. “Blockchain was relatively new and we weren’t sure there was something behind the hype. That’s why we decided to do two pilot studies, one in mango in North America and one in pork in China.”
The two proof-of-concept pilots convinced him that there is value to blockchain technology that goes beyond the traditional approach to traceability. Among other things, Walmart discovered it could trace the origin of the mangoes it was selling within 2.2 seconds, much faster than the prior timeline of seven days.
Walmart subsequently launched a one-year pilot and invited its large buyers and some competitors to participate. It spent a full year testing, learning, and scaling blockchain technology with the partners across two dozen SKUs before it officially launched a Walmart initiative with leafy green suppliers in September 2018 using blockchain technology. “The Yuma romaine lettuce outbreak from March 2018 was fresh in our minds,” Bhatt says. “That was before we knew there would be another large advisory in November 2018 as well as November 2019.”
Walmart gave its three dozen leafy green suppliers one year to onboard to the blockchain platform. “What that means is that before they ship leafy green products from their facilities to our distribution centers, we need to know which farms they came from and when they were harvested,” Bhatt says. “With the success of that launch, we expanded the initiative to our green bell pepper suppliers in July 2019.” There are approximately 40 suppliers of bell peppers that have until July 2020 to adopt blockchain technology from the farms to the retail store.