When an outbreak of food-borne illness like Salmonella occurs, being able to trace how a contaminated food made it onto someone’s plate is the most important part of preventing others from getting sick.
We need to know what someone ate that made them sick, where that food came from and where else that same contamination is within our food system. Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that a nationwide Salmonella Oranienburg outbreak was linked to onions imported from Mexico and distributed throughout the United States. The U.S. Food & Drug Administration had been tracking outbreaks of this particular strain of Salmonella since the first reported case in May and was only recently able to confirm the source of the problem: onions.
While thankfully there have been no deaths caused by the outbreak, this case illustrates how desperately our food safety system needs a major update.
The food safety and food recall system relies on getting the word out to people. The latest update from the CDC announcing the link between the outbreak and onions was the first step in the process.
Once we know that onions are making people sick, we can tell people to avoid raw onions. But this outbreak isn’t the same as an outbreak linked to something like a specific flavor of a specific brand of ice cream. In that case, it’s pretty easy to tell grocery stores exactly what items to take off of their shelves.
How does contaminated food end up in the food supply?
But onions are everywhere. Telling people that every unlabeled onion and every food that may have onions in it should be tossed out immediately would not only be wasteful but also unrealistic. We need to know exactly which onions are making people sick and where those contaminated onions are so that more people don’t eat them.
Improving the traceability of our food continues to be a major priority for the FDA. Traceability is core not only for discovering the source of a contamination but also for figuring out where the contaminated food has ended up in the food supply. In addition to knowing where the contaminated onions are, any prepared foods using those onions should also be traced and recalled.
Right now, most of the records that track food as it moves through the supply chain are still paper copies. That means that every step in the journey from farm to fork, including every manufacturer, processor, packager, supplier and retailer, has its own set of paper records for the food that moves through its facilities. Following that paper trail can take months, and every additional day means another person could get sick.
Tracking the source can take weeks
To illustrate how this process works and where there’s room for improvement, let’s look at the current onion Salmonella outbreak. Let’s say our fictional friend Sally got sick after eating the raw onions sprinkled on the tacos she ordered at a restaurant. The restaurant got those onions from a distributor that processed and packaged the onions. That distributor got the contaminated onions, along with thousands of pounds of other onions, from a number of different farms in both the United States and in Mexico.
In order to figure out exactly which farm grew the contaminated onion that eventually made Sally sick, it would take the FDA weeks to comb through the ledgers at each step of the onion’s journey all the way back to the source of the problem. As of today, they’ve discovered the onion that made Sally sick was imported from Chihuahua, Mexico, and distributed by ProSource Produce and Keeler Family Farms. OK, great, now what?
From there, regulators have to track down all of the places that the contaminated onion may have ended up. There are endless offshoots from every step in the onion’s journey, meaning that it’s contaminated companions could be anywhere. Maybe all of the onions coming from Chihuahua are contaminated, not just the ones distributed by ProSource or Keeler Family Farms.
What if food had QR codes?
The FDA’s investigation found that a lot of the people who got sick ate raw onions at a restaurant. But perhaps some of those onions were distributed to grocery stores in addition to restaurants. We’d need to know which grocery stores, and specifically which onions within those grocery stores are possibly contaminated. Maybe certain grocery stores used the onions in the prepared salsa or potato salad they serve at the deli. Now those foods could also be contaminated.
Although the outbreak has been linked to specific onion distributors, there is still no telling how the onions got contaminated in the first place and whether other onion supplies may also be contaminated.
Arriving at this still somewhat inconclusive origin story took months. According to the timeline of the outbreak, the first reported infection was back in May. Linking the outbreak back to onions is one thing. Then tracking down where all of these onions ended up, especially if they’ve been made into other foods, seems like quite the headache if it’s a matter of pouring over hard copy records.
But what if all of this tracking information was digitized and kept in one place? What if every onion had a QR code that would link to a list of every place it’s been and when? Furthermore, what if that potato salad had a similar code linking to all the tracking information for each of its ingredients?
What if everyone with recalled food got a text alert?
Tech-enabled traceability is the first of the four pillars of the FDA’s New Era of Smart Food Safety. Announced in 2020, the blueprint provides a 10-year roadmap for modernizing approaches to food safety using new technologies that can connect every step of the food supply chain so that people can be alerted about a food safety issue before they consume something that could make them sick. As part of the initiative, the FDA hosted a competition for third-party tech providers to propose solutions to these traceability challenges.
One of the winners of the competition presented a blockchain-based solution that would be the silver bullet we’re looking for: an item-level tracking system that lets consumers scan a QR code on a specific product in the grocery store to pull up all of the data points leading back to the farm. And better yet, once an item is purchased, that is added as a data point. That means that if that specific product is recalled, the tracing extends all the way to the specific person who bought that item. Think how easy it would be if every person who bought a recalled item could get an alert to their phone.
Every day that passes means more people at risk
As exciting as it is to hear that this magic technology is out there, it’s not being deployed fast enough. We’re still relying on paper-based ledgers in 2021? Really? These solutions need to be implemented at the industry level. And this switch is already happening. In 2018 following a huge E. coli scare linked to Romaine lettuce, Walmart implemented a new blockchain-based tracing system for all of the leafy greens sold in its stores. Because of this system, the food contamination tracing research that used to take seven days to complete now takes 2.2 seconds. Imagine that.
In addition to data about where and when a food item has been along its path from farm to fork, technology like Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) can also track data like the temperature and humidity level that the food item was exposed to at each stop.
Shelf-stable foods like onions are one thing, because food safety concerns usually originate at the farm where Salmonella in water runoff can get into the crops. With perishable food like meat, bacteria contamination can arise at any point. Tracing data that includes environmental factors is instrumental in knowing exactly where along the supply chain a package of salmon, for example, was left at above-safe temperatures levels. Access to this sort of information could mean that this specific package of salmon could be pulled aside before it even gets close to a supermarket shelf.
The technology is here. The time is now. When it comes to tracing and preventing outbreaks of Salmonella, E. coli, or Listeria, every day and every hour wasted really could be a matter of life or death. Traceability is everything. As consumers, we deserve an accountable food system where we can know where our food comes from and where the risks are before we find out the hard way.