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Fresh Food

Romaine E. Coli Aftermath: Mapping a Path Forward

Produce industry calls for swift communication, traceability overhaul following another outbreak
Photos courtesy of iStock

As consumers shopping for weekend supplies entered grocery stores across the country on April 20, health officials issued a warning to throw away all store-bought romaine. Shoppers, whose phones were abuzz with the news, naturally demanded answers from grocers who had just received the information themselves.

While Tops Friendly Markets of Williamsville, N.Y., had moved away from stocking lettuce from Arizona (the growing region of the E. coli-contaminated greens) and into California-grown romaine at the time of the alert, the news still concerned many shoppers.

“We were impacted because the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) just sends out a tweet that says, ‘Throw romaine away.’ Consumers were scared and looked to retailers for answers,” says Jeff Cady, director of produce and floral. “Stores were getting numerous questions, and we had to quickly arm our teams with the best information available.” 

“The FDA (Food and Drug Administration) and CDC say [not to] eat a whole category of product, and retailers are scrambling to make sure they know what’s going on,” says Jennifer McEntire, VP of food safety and technology for the United Fresh Produce Association in Washington, D.C. “There is opportunity to improve communication every which way between the government and the industry.”

The outbreak sickened nearly 200 people in 35 states and killed five, making it a more widespread and deadly outbreak than the devastating spinach outbreak of 2006. “Without question, this is a major outbreak given the severity of the cases and number of people affected,” McEntire says.

Tainted irrigation water in Yuma, Ariz., was identified in early July as the source of the outbreak, while the search for additional information regarding the specific location of the canal and how the bacteria got into the canal continues. "More work needs to be done to determine just how and why this strain of E. coli O157:H7 could have gotten into this body of water and how that led to contamination of romaine lettuce from multiple farms," FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb said in a statement.

Call for Communication

romaine warning

With sales of leafy greens depressed since the outbreak, and shopper confidence in the category down, industry organizations and grocers are looking to learn from this latest foodborne illness and move forward in a way that strengthens food safety systems and regains consumer trust. For many, a critical piece of the puzzle is better and faster communication.

“The first thing we need to address is how we communicate clearly, effectively and expediently,” says Jackie Caplan Wiggins, VP and COO of Frieda’s Inc., a specialty produce supplier in Los Alamitos, Calif. “This is also the second issue with romaine,” she says, referring to a multistate and Canadian outbreak of E. coli-contaminated greens that began in November 2017.

“My first hope is that we get more accurate information more quickly,” Cady says. “Weeks cannot go by before we alert consumers. This outbreak went better than the one late last year, but still not fast enough. The industry should take the front seat, not the CDC.” 

Cady also hopes that moving forward, the industry can present a “united message” to the consumer.

“I think the industry needs to align itself with the media and get the story out there that the food chain in this country is safe and then show why,” he says. “Suppliers go to great lengths to make sure our supply is safe to eat. Let’s show the consumer that we have nothing to hide, and are proud of our approach to food safety.” 

McEntire agrees: “I think the industry needs to be vocal about what’s been done historically, and the stringency of our food safety practices. We need to share that information and the personal stories of the growers. They care about food safety, too, and are making substantial financial investments in technology tools.”

Collaboration Continues to be Key

In the wake of the early spring outbreak, industry organizations, including the Produce Marketing Association (PMA) in Newark, Del., the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) in Washington, D.C., and United Fresh are all collaborating with the FDA and CDC, as well as their grocer and supplier members, to help streamline communication and traceability.  

“The outbreak has renewed the conversation in our industry of having better traceability. We need to work on how these investigations can move more quickly, and how we can be more useful to the FDA, while respecting regulations,” says McEntire, a committee member of the newly formed Leafy Greens Food Safety Task Force.

Fellow Task Force Committee Member and PMA Chief Science and Technology Officer Dr. Bob Whitaker, who leads scores of food safety workshops around the country and the world, says, “We’re very involved in FSMA (Food Safety Modernization Act) and with the FDA and CDC. During an outbreak, we work with them as much as possible. We’re in this together.”

PMA also acts as a communications vehicle for its members, distilling scientific information and helping them to understand it. In this case, with the root cause still unsolved, Whitaker may have more questions than answers. “As this goes on, history would say that it’s less likely we’ll pinpoint the cause,” he says. “Harvest to shelf life on romaine is over in less than three weeks. By the time we see the first reports of illness, the field is already gone. Produce is not like a can of soup. There’s a lot of buying and selling, and a lot of parties to trace the product to.”

“Two of the four pillars of FSMA didn’t work. The outbreak was not prevented and the response wasn’t quick,” says Hillary Thesmar, CFS, FMI’s chief food and product safety officer and senior VP. “Here we are weeks in, and no closer to knowing the cause, which is essential to knowing how to prevent it again.”

During the outbreak and in its aftermath, FMI has been in frequent contact with its retailer members to brainstorm a path forward. “Retailers are frustrated,” Thesmar says. “They want much closer communication with the FDA and CDC, with access to real-time information when a product is pulled, to protect the health of their customers. They don’t want to hear it on the news or Twitter. Retailers don’t want to be secondary.”

High-Risk Foods

When WGB asked the FDA what it had learned from this latest outbreak in terms of communicating with retailers, and how this knowledge might influence future communications surrounding outbreaks and/or recalls, an FDA spokesperson relayed the complexities of traceability—but not how these efforts might be improved.

“The FDA and its partners have been involved in extensive traceback efforts of the romaine lettuce that was likely consumed by those who became ill,” the spokesperson said. “Traceback involves working backwards from the point of consumption or purchase of the product through the supply chain that often includes multiple steps along the way. 

“This is an arduous and labor-intensive task that requires collecting and sifting through thousands of records, attempting to reproduce how the contaminated lettuce moved through the food supply chain to grocery stores, restaurants and other locations where it was sold or served.” Pointing out that leafy greens account for more illnesses from E. coli than any other produce, nine consumer advocacy groups have made recommendations to the FDA for improving traceability.

In late May, with the root cause of the outbreak still unknown, Consumers Union—the advocacy division of Consumer Reports—along with eight other advocacy groups sent a letter to Gottlieb of the FDA, urging the agency to “propose, within six months, requirements for comprehensive and rapid traceability of produce, including leafy greens. Specifically, the FDA should implement the long-overdue directive laid out by Congress in the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) requiring the agency to issue a proposed rule establishing record-keeping requirements for high-risk foods.”

The groups further urged the FDA to designate produce, including leafy greens, as “high-risk foods,” and requested that the FDA immediately provide advice and communication to the leafy-greens industry on existing requirements and best practices to enhance traceability. As “current technology makes it possible for retailers to track and trace products with extraordinary speed and accuracy,” argued the groups, “it is no longer acceptable that the FDA has no means to swiftly determine where a bag of lettuce was grown or packaged.”

Blockchain Buzz

Blockchain is an increasingly compelling piece of today’s traceability technology. But is it the game changer the industry seeks?

Made possible by the technology behind the cryptocurrency bitcoin, blockchain was reportedly established by Satoshi Nakamoto, the creator of the first bitcoins. According to the MIT Technology Review, “Nakamoto combined established cryptography tools with methods derived from decades of computer science research to enable a public network of participants, who don’t necessarily trust each other, to agree over and over that a shared accounting ledger reflects the truth.”

This technology is now being adopted by others, including Walmart. “I often describe [blockchain] as food traceability at the speed of thought—as quickly as you can think it, we can know it,” Frank Yiannas, VP of food safety for Walmart, told the Los Angeles Times, which reported in May that the retail giant is expanding an IBM-driven pilot blockchain. Suppliers such as Unilever, Nestle and Danone are already onboard.

Offering instantly knowable and verifiable real-time information, blockchain ensures that all points along the supply chain from farmer to retailer cannot make changes in record keeping without every party signing off. “I don’t know if it’s a be-all-end-all, but blockchain is discussed more and more frequently in the produce industry,” says Jackie Caplan Wiggins of Frieda’s Inc., a company that has been doing third-party audits since 1998.

The buzz about blockchain also includes its ability to keep information extremely secure and ward off hacking. This means that the technology could allow retailers to rest easier when keeping track of sensitive information such as their customers’ credit card numbers and staff members’ personal details.

As Wiggins’ sister, Karen Caplan, president/CEO of Frieda’s Specialty Produce, told WGB’s Rebekah Marcarelli earlier this year for her “Breaking Down Blockchain” two-part series, this type of security could also be useful for human resources teams, who are responsible for keeping personal information such as social security numbers safe: “HR functions would be a perfect use for blockchain; you store personal files and employee information in a blockchain format and then actually give people access to all relevant information, without divulging the part you want to keep locked up.”

Also, because blockchain allows retailers to share certain blocks of information while keeping other details locked, the technology can also help protect a company’s intellectual property or trade secrets, Caplan said: “There’s so much information as a supplier that we have to have at our fingertips but yet that we don’t want to give away.”

At the MIT Technology Review’s Business of Blockchain conference in April, Yiannas said Walmart is working with IBM “to create a new vision of food transparency that’s good for people and the planet,” and that he believes a lack of transparency is the food system’s Achilles heel. Moving from a linear system of digital traceback to blockchain has dramatically increased the speed with which Walmart can trace a product to its source.

Yiannas revealed that a mango traceability exercise that took more than six days using Walmart’s old traceability system took just 2.2 seconds using blockchain. Walmart has been working with IBM to capture as much information as possible into the blockchain food “ecosystem,” said Yiannas, pointing out that as of April, the retailer was close to having two dozen SKUs on blockchain, representing millions of food products tracked.

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