This past week saw the publication of the Final Report and Recommendations from the Romaine Task Force. This cross-industry group was formed following the romaine food-borne illness outbreak of November 2018. The group included a multitude of experts from industry, science and academia who, through different working groups, looked at various aspects of last November’s E. coli O157:H7 romaine outbreak which resulted in 62 people getting sick, of which 25 were hospitalized and thankfully no deaths.

The task force looked at a variety of elements including science and prevention, traceability, the collaboration between government groups and industry, and product labeling. The report does a great job of trying to resolve the competing objectives of all participants. No one wants people to get sick, but more specifically:

  • Consumers want to know their food is safe
  • Retailers and government cannot risk outbreaks and therefore have in the past shutdown entire parts of the agricultural industry
  • Grower/shippers need to get perishable food to market quickly and safely, in a way that allows them to make a small profit

The report is full of excellent recommendations based on science and factual evidence. The most repeated and strongest recommendation is for the full implementation of a traceability system across the entire perishable food supply chain from farm to fork. The groups active in the task force that would be involved in implementing and maintaining a full traceability system include growers, shippers, wholesalers, retailers and food service outlets; and it appears all groups supported this recommendation. This is an idea that has come up many times. Hopefully with stronger cross-industry support and direct government intervention more will actually happen this time.

The report calls for all suppliers of leafy greens to label cartons with scannable PTI labels by January 1, 2020. By September 2020, anyone selling or serving leafy greens should be able to provide relevant agencies with key data about those products, electronically. In support of this the FDA provided a template of the information they would require from all parties in the event of a food-borne illness outbreak.

This is huge and great news for all of us! Previous attempts to implement an end-to-end traceability system failed when they were not fully adopted and supported by all parties – the Produce Traceability Initiative being the most noteworthy. These earlier initiatives did not fail because of technology, and so it is dangerous for us to look at newer technologies such as blockchain as a panacea. Blockchain is simply a different type of database in which to store the traceability data.

The critical success factor for a comprehensive traceability system is for every party in the perishable food supply chain to do their part in capturing, maintaining and forwarding as necessary the relevant traceability information. Heavy involvement and pressure from the FDA can make this happen.

If everyone in the supply chain supports, adopts and implements the traceability recommendations from the Romaine Task Force, then the most critical piece of the FDA’s vision a New Era of Smarter Food Safety will be realized.