Outbreak Shines Light on Complicated Problem for Produce Industry: Traceability

With an outbreak of E. coli hitting a major part of the romaine lettuce supply, the challenges of tracing produce in the food chain are quickly growing more apparent. Industry groups have long supported a traceability initiative, but a significant number of growers have yet to embrace the effort.

The recent E. coli outbreak involving romaine lettuce put a lot of consumers and retailers in a difficult, often confusing position.

Now that the impact is starting to die down, the industry that represents producers of romaine lettuce (along with lots of other vegetables) is ready to take away some important lessons from the saga—among them, the importance of traceability.

In recent years, the United Fresh Produce Association, the Produce Marketing Association (PMA), and other groups have sponsored an initiative to improve the tracking of produce and where it shows up. The Produce Traceability Initiative (PTI) aims to create universal standards that the industry can use to track the spread of products.

But the traceability issue is a complicated one, and growers haven’t always seen eye to eye with the federal government about how to best handle it. The voluntary nature of PTI, for one thing, has made it difficult to get everyone on the same page, with some growers concerned about added costs.

As many as 60 percent of produce firms use labeling through the initiative, but the wide number of companies that don’t use such tracing tools have complicated matters for the Food and Drug Administration, which has struggled to pinpoint the exact source of the recent E. coli outbreak.

“This is an era of big data and technology—we ought to really be able to find out which farm a bag of lettuce came from,” the Center for Science in the Public Interest’s Sarah Sorscher told The New York Times this week.

In comments to The Packer, PMA’s vice president of supply chain efficiencies, Ed Treacy, noted that individual companies that have taken part in PTI—largely at the request of major companies like Walmart or Whole Foods—have seen significant improvements in quality control and distribution prowess.

“We’ve seen [companies] who pack out of Mexico and the U.S., depending on the season, having two sets of inventory of empty cartons because the country of origin was printed on the box,” Treacy told the news outlet. “Well if it’s on the label, you can go down to one inventory, use the same box, doesn’t matter what country. You’re going to get efficiencies in the amount of inventory you have of empty boxes and the cost to purchase those boxes because they’ll be less ink on them.”

With the issue growing in importance, some are looking to technology as a potential solution to encourage more uptake of traceability tools like labels. A recent Wired piece made the case that blockchain technology could prove a happy medium for an industry with a complicated supply chain. However, the magazine noted that the complexity of the modern food chain creates challenges for tech.

“Right now, people are writing contracts with the equivalent of two brothers with 10 acres of mangoes in Mexico who haven’t taken their farm electronic,” Amy Kircher, the director of the Food Protection and Defense Institute at the University of Minnesota, told the outlet. “It raises the question of how far back you can go.”

(Zakharova_Natalia/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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