Food Service & Agriculture, Health Care, and Technology

Blockchain enters agriculture industry for recall purposes

Technology will help retailers find source of E. coli on produce within seconds.

October 5, 2018
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(As seen on WZZM TV 13) The spread of E. coli has forced major retailers to reconsider the way they track their produce.

Romaine lettuce has been at the center of recalls this year, which has caused Walmart and Sam’s Club to require their suppliers to use blockchain technology to trace their leafy greens back to the farmers.

By September 2019, suppliers must use IBM Food Trust, blockchain technology that digitalizes transactions and data from the supply chain, which includes growers, processors, shippers, retailers, regulators, consumers and other information such as certifications, test data and temperature data. When the information is needed, it can be accessed in seconds, as opposed to days or sometimes weeks, according to a statement released by Walmart.

This year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported there have been 210 cases of E. coli in romaine lettuce, which have caused 96 hospitalizations and five deaths. In the state of Michigan, there have been 26 cases of E. coli detected in lettuce this year, according to the Michigan Department of Health & Human Services.

“Walmart believes the current one step up and one step back model of food traceability is outdated for the 21st century and, that by working together, we can do better,” the company said. “There is no question that there is a strong public-health and business case for enhanced food traceability. By quickly tracing leafy greens back to source during an outbreak using recent advances in new and emerging technologies, impacts to human health can be minimized, health officials can conduct rapid and more thorough root cause analysis to inform future prevention efforts, and the implication and associated losses of unaffected products that are inaccurately linked to an outbreak can be avoided.”

Walmart has been relying on the Produce Traceability Initiative (PTI), which is primarily a paper trail that tracks produces from grower to retailer. Phillip Tocco, good agricultural practices, food safety and food and animal systems educator at Michigan State University Extension, described PTI as a stock keeping unit that keeps track of growers’ produces.

He said stock keeping units use a special printer that prints out a large paper with a barcode, which also has smaller papers with the same barcode. The smaller barcode is placed on produce like romaine lettuce before it continues to go up the supply chain. As a result, it takes a long time for the retailer to trace the bacteria back to the grower when there is an outbreak.

“All growers that sell into large-scale markets like Walmart have to have a traceability plan in place, even if it is just a simple 12-digit number that tells you where it came from, who picked it, when it was picked and what it is — basic information can be coded in a 10- or 12-digit (barcode) … the hard part is standardization,” Tocco said.

Now, Walmart has established a new standard that requires all suppliers to use IBM Food Trust, which will more quickly trace E. coli bacteria back to its source.

The digital blockchain provides some tamper-proof ability to secure the data that is uploaded, stored, checked and replicated multiple times through the journey from a farm to the retailer.

However, the blockchain will not stop the spread of E. coli. Lance Kraai, farm director of Grand Rapids-based New City Neighbors, said E. coli is easily spread when there are large amounts of lettuce.

“E. coli in lettuce washing is only a major issue in large-scale commercial growing operations where lettuce is washed in bulk,” Kraai said. “In this situation, one contaminated head enters a mass washing bin and then contaminates the entirety of all the lettuce that gets washed until the water is changed.”

Tocco said the deadly bacteria are first identified at a hospital, where an individual is diagnosed with a foodborne illness. Then the doctors are required to notify the county health department about the case, which reports it to the state health department. The state then reports it to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Once Walmart is alerted, it will immediately be able to trace the head of lettuce back to its origin within seconds, the company said.

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