Does plant traceability really help?

Being German, I am following the news coming from Germany about the E. coli outbreak that killed by now more than 15 people and have thousands sickened. It is for me a déjà vu, remembering the tomato scare we had in the US a couple of year back, were innocent companies (tomato farmers, vs. now Spanish growers) have been initially blamed, only to find out that something else cause the outbreak (it had been the Jalapenos, in Germany they still don’t know). In warfare we would call this collateral damage. The US has passed at the end of last year ‘landmark’ legislation (HR. 2749 and s.510) to protect the innocent in the entire supply chain, from the farms to the end consumers. But do these efforts really help?

It seems they do not.

Europe has been on the leading edge with traceability in the food supply chain ever since they had to deal with BSE (Mad Cow disease). Consumer protection is one of the leading priorities in European legislation, more so than in any place of the world as far as I know. Well, perhaps the Chinese are a little bit ahead with truly draconian punishments for food safety offenders according to CNN.

I think we can work as long as we want on traceability systems in the food supply chain, but as long as we do not start at the end, at the point of consumption, we will continue to struggle locating the source of any outbreak. Whether it were jalapenos, spinach, the PBA case, pretty much any of the recalls within FDA regulated foods took 3 or more month from recognizing that an outbreak has occurred to locating the source of the outbreak. The actual recall measures to retrieve the product have been a matter of days. Of course, we can keep working on making our plants more effective to recall product perhaps within a day or so, but this is the smaller problem to solve.

The larger problem is still the role of the consumer. As long as we rely on consumers to recollect what they ate, and where they got potentially infected, we have a hard time locating the source and the cause. The primary problem we need to solve is tracking food purchases, whether these take place in retail or food service establishments via credit cards, customer loyalty cards and make that information available and accessible for authorities in case of an outbreak. This may sound a lot like ‘big brother’ watching you and I certainly see privacy issues among others arise out of it, but I also do not see a solution to the problem if we consider these hurdles as to high to overcome.

I am curious to see what the cause of this particular outbreak turns out to be. It may be even a cause that is completely out of the scope of traceability systems as we know them today. It may be an act of Bio Terrorism (why is this a completely new strain with so devastating effects), it may be a contamination of the water supply in certain areas, perhaps those used to cool and moisturize veggies in the retail shelves, I think investigators are challenged to think far enough outside the box to find the culprit. Let’s see what happens, but also let’s turn the traceability discussion into a direction that truly fixes our issues instead of stimulating the economy by mandating food companies to invest in solutions in search of a problem. We need to think about the weakest links for traceability in the supply chain, and food processors and manufactures are not the weakest link, retailers, food service establishments and consumers are.

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