Tag Archives: outbreaks

CDC, FDA, USDA logos

IFSAC to Continue Focus on Finding Sources of Foodborne Illnesses

By Food Safety Tech Staff
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CDC, FDA, USDA logos

The Interagency Food Safety Analytics Collaboration (IFSAC) has published its 2022–2023 Interim Strategic Plan, placing continued emphasis on foodborne illness source attribution for Salmonella, E. coli O157:H7, Listeria monocytogenes and Campylobacter. Over the next year, IFSAC will address several short-term goals surrounding improvement of methods to evaluate and identify foodborne illness source attribution through the use of outbreak and non-outbreak-associated disease data, and continued collaboration with external partners in an effort to boost data access and capabilities. The group will be targeting several efforts in the coming year, including:

  • Analysis of trends related to foodborne disease outbreak-associated illnesses over the past two decades, with a subsequent peer-reviewed journal article that reveals results.
  • Development and improvement of machine-learning methods used to predict food sources of illnesses that have an unknown source. WGS will be used to compare Salmonella isolates of known and unknown sources.
  • Collaboration with FoodNet when assessing key food sources for sporadic Salmonella Enteritidis and Campylobacter illnesses. The group will develop case-control studies using specific FoodNet data.

Formed in 2011, IFSAC is a partnership between FDA, FSIS and the CDC that seeks to strengthen federal interagency efforts and maximize use of food safety data collection, analysis and use. During 2022–2023, IFSAC will publish its yearly reports on foodborne illness source attribution for the previously mentioned priority pathogens.

Food Safety in 2022: Sustainability, Supply Chain Issues, Consumer Preferences and Technology at the Forefront

By Maria Fontanazza
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The ongoing pandemic, food fraud, food insecurity, supply chain disruptions and shortages, maintaining and fostering a robust food safety culture, and foodborne illness outbreaks kept the food industry very busy last year. Looking ahead to 2022, these challenges will continue, but many food companies are becoming better at forecasting and course correcting. During a recent interview with Food Safety Tech, Waylon Sharp, vice president and chief operating officer at Bureau Veritas, discussed trends affecting food safety this year, along with how companies should respond to incoming challenges.

Waylon Sharp, Bureau Veritas
Waylon Sharp leads North American food and agriculture testing, inspection and certification operations at Bureau Veritas.

Food Safety Tech: What challenges did food companies face in 2021 and how can they apply their lessons learned in the new year?

Waylon Sharp: Supply chain disruptions were a big challenge for food companies in 2021, as much of the North American food system is reliant on production or raw materials from international locations. This theme will continue into 2022, as logistics become more costly and challenging from a labor perspective, food companies will naturally gravitate to exploring alternatives. This shift in supply will increase the need for verification of product quality and safety of new suppliers. In addition to, or alternatively, some producers may choose more local options to reduce delays and increase stability of supply.

FST: What are the key trends impacting food safety in 2022?

Sharp: This year we’ll see food safety impacted by sustainability, consumer preferences and health and wellness:

  • Sustainability: Connecting with a purpose will be a key driver for both attracting new customers and enticing top talent to join food organizations. All aspects are critical, including sourcing raw materials, the packaging used, and minimizing the CO2 footprint in production and logistics. Consequently, I suspect there will be bad actors that see the advantage of appearing to be responsible but not doing what they say. Services that hold these organizations accountable will likely continue to grow.
  • Consumer Preferences: Migration to hyper-local, community supporting businesses can be directly correlated to the COVID financial fallout. Buying local helps support the areas we reside in, and this trend will likely persist. The feel-good support should also result in fresher product with less supply chain challenges for consumers.
  • Health & Wellness: Sustainable, plant-based products are expanding in prevalence. Traditional meat alternatives witnessed an increase in volume and new entrants such as seafood alternatives also grew in consumer acceptance. I expect more to launch in 2022 to meet the rising demand for healthy and environmentally conscious alternatives.

FST: What technologies will play a role in helping food companies tackle their biggest hurdles this year?

Sharp: Technology will continue to play an important role in the industry this year. Additional automation and digital tools to manufacture, assess food quality and safety, and distribute food are all likely to grow. Staffing challenges will continue to impact those highly manual production environments and the more work that can be performed without human intervention will gain favor over labor-intensive functions. In addition, remote audits and inspections allow for an experienced individual to assess a situation without traveling and being present on-site to limit human contact.

FDA

FDA’s Foodborne Outbreak Response Improvement Plan Seeks to Expedite Investigations

By Food Safety Tech Staff
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FDA

Today FDA released a plan to help the agency and its partners improve the “speed, effectiveness, coordination and communication” of investigations surrounding foodborne illness outbreaks.

“We know that the 21st century has brought new challenges in identifying, investigating and controlling outbreaks of foodborne disease, but it has also brought new tools to meet those challenges,” stated Frank Yiannas, FDA Deputy Commissioner for Food Policy and Response, and Stic Harris, D.V.M. director of the FDA’s Coordinated Outbreak Response and Evaluation Network in an agency news release. “We also recognize that today’s U.S. food system is large and decentralized, with a broad array of widely distributed products, which we must adapt to in order to help ensure the safety of these products. That is why we are taking steps through this improvement plan to evolve our outbreak investigations to meet modern-day needs using the most modern-day tools available. Our investigations must be faster, more streamlined and more effective to identify, pinpoint and remove contaminated food from the market and identify root-cause factors in the food system to prevent similar outbreaks in the future.”

The Foodborne Outbreak Response Improvement Plan targets four areas that, if improved, will have the greatest effect on foodborne illness outbreaks:

  • Tech-enabled product traceback: Being smarter about using digital technology, regularly, to streamline traceback investigations
  • Root-cause investigations: Adapting and strengthening procedures for conducting root-cause investigations
  • Working with the CDC, USDA’s FSIS and other partners to improve the analysis and distribution of outbreak data (including identifying recurring, emerging and persistent strains of pathogens)
  • Enhancing performance measures across the agency’s food programs to enable better evaluation of the timeless and effectiveness of outbreak and regulatory investigation activities

In addition to this improvement plan, the agency also released “An Independent Review of FDA’s Foodborne Outbreak Response Processes”, which was contracted with the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health. The independent report played an important role in the development of FDA’s improvement plan.

Emily Newton, Revolutionized Magazine
FST Soapbox

Using Artificial Intelligence May Add More Transparency to the Food Supply Chain

By Emily Newton
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Emily Newton, Revolutionized Magazine

Food industry professionals know how supply chain transparency plays a major role in keeping everything running smoothly. Brand representatives want confirmation that their agricultural partners can fill upcoming orders. If things go wrong and people get sick from what they eat, better visibility is vital in addressing and curbing such issues.

Artificial intelligence (AI) is a critical part of better food supply chain awareness among all applicable parties. This article briefly discusses some interesting examples.

Applying AI to Crop Management

Even the most experienced agricultural professionals know farming is far from an exact science. Everything from pests to droughts can negatively impact a growing season, even if a farmer does anything they can to influence production in their favor.

However, AI can help predict yields, enabling farmers to maintain transparency and set accurate expectations for parties further down the supply chain. That’s especially important in the increasingly popular farm-to-table movement, which shortens how far produce travels and may entail using it on the same day someone picks it.

One newly developed machine-learning tool relies on computer vision and ultra-scale images taken from the air to categorize lettuce crops. More specifically, it captures details about the size, quality, and quantity of the heads. Combining that with GPS allows more efficient harvesting.

Tracing Foodborne Illness

CDC Statistics indicate foodborne illnesses sicken one in six people every year in the United States. FSMA contains rules and actions for food processing facilities to prevent such instances, but outbreaks still happen. AI could be yet another useful mitigation measure.

Researchers at the University of Georgia determined that, since the 1960s, approximately a quarter of Salmonella outbreaks have been from the Typhimurium variation. They trained a machine-learning algorithm on more than 1,300 Typhimurium genomes with known origins. The model eventually achieved 83% accuracy in predicting certain animal sources that would have the Typhimurium genome. It showed the most accuracy with poultry and swine.

Reducing Food Waste

Waste is a tremendous problem for the food supply chain. In the United States, data shows that upwards of 40% of packaged consumables get discarded once they reach the use-by date. That happens whether or not the products are actually unsafe to eat.

However, better visibility into this issue has a positive impact on food distribution. For example, some restaurants give people discounted meals rather than throwing them away. In other cases, grocery stores partner with charities, helping people in need have enough to eat.

Scientists in Singapore have also created an electronic “nose” that uses AI to sniff out meat freshness. More specifically, it reacts to the gases produced during decay. When the team tested the system on chicken, fish and beef, it showed 98.5% accuracy in its task. Using AI in this manner could bring transparency that cuts food waste while assuring someone that a food product is still safe to eat despite the appearance of it being expired based on Best Before’ labeling.

Removing Guesswork From Dynamic Processes

People are particularly interested in how AI often detects signs that humans miss. Thus, it can often solve problems that previously proved challenging. For example, even the most conscientious farmers can’t watch all their animals every moment of the day and night, but AI could provide greater visibility. That’s valuable since animal health can directly impact the success of entire farming operations.

One European Union-funded AI project took into account how animal health is a primary factor in milk production. The tool compared cows’ behaviors to baseline levels and characteristics of the animals at the most successful farms. It then provided users with practical insights for improvement. Europe has at least 274 million dairy cows, and their milk makes up 11%-14% of Europeans’ dietary fat requirements. Those statistics show why keeping herds producing as expected is critical.

AI is also increasingly used in aquaculture. Until recently, fish farming professionals largely used intuition and experience to determine feeding amounts. However, that can lead to waste. One company uses artificial intelligence to sense fish and shrimp hunger levels and sends that information to smart dispensers that release food. The manufacturers say this approach causes up to a 21% reduction in feed costs. Other solutions track how much fish eat over time, helping farmers adjust their care protocols.

Fascinating Advancements in Supply Chain Transparency

These instances are only a sampling of what AI can do to support the food supply chain. Although most of them are most relevant to producers, consumers will likely reap the benefits, too. For example, some food labels already show the precise field associated with the potatoes used for a bag of chips. Once technology reaches a point where most consumers could have advanced AI apps on their phones, it could be a matter of aiming a smartphone’s camera at any food product and instantly seeing the path it took before reaching the consumer. It’s too early to know when that might happen. Nevertheless, what’s already possible with innovative technology is compelling in its own right and makes people rightfully eager to see what’s on the horizon.

ASI Food Safety
In the Food Lab

Planning Is Key Component of Listeria Prevention

By Matt Regusci
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ASI Food Safety

Reading the news in recent months, it seems like there is a new outbreak every week or at least a new recall of various food products contaminated with Listeria, specifically Listeria monocytogenes. Companies have recalled broccoli, kale, cantaloupes, smoked salmon (lox), mushrooms, soft cheese, sprouts, frozen chicken, and even hot dog buns in the last several months.

Listeria monocytogenes is a species of pathogenic bacteria that is very unique. Unlike many pathogens that are mainly fecal bacteria, like E. Coli and Salmonella, Listeria can be found just about anywhere including soil, water, dust and animal feces, to name a few.

We are around Listeria all the time. For example, when moms encourage their children to play outside to enhance their immune systems, one of the bacteria kids are likely exposed to is Listeria. This kind of exposure is generally acceptable, as the vast majority of people that get sick from Listeria exposure typically ingest quite a bit of it. That’s why it is essential to get in front of Listeria to avoid ready-to-eat products from becoming contaminated.

Listeria is one of the few bacteria to survive freezing temperatures and grow, albeit slowly, in a refrigerator. The exact range for growth of Listeria is 39.2°F (4 °C) to 98.6°F (37°C). To successfully kill Listeria using temperature controls, it must be cooked at least at 165°F (73°C). Left at room temperature, the pathogen grows rapidly. If you have ready-to-eat food contaminated with Listeria and it is taken out of the fridge, left on the counter for a couple of hours, then eaten, it’s a recipe for disaster.

If you are healthy, the vast majority of the Listeria bacteria will be attacked and killed by the immune system, preventing the ability for infection to take hold. If the immune system is compromised by conditions such as cancer, AIDS, pregnancy, geriatrics, etc., then Listeria becomes an infection called Listeriosis—an invasive infection.

The FDA and the CDC published some facts about Listeriosis and foodborne illness in general, and the diagnosis is stark. The FDA estimates that 1 in 6 Americans or 43 million people will get a foodborne illness annually. Of those that get sick, the FDA estimates 128,000 will be hospitalized, and about 3,000 die.

In the United States, the CDC estimates that about 1,600 people will get Listeriosis each year, and of those cases, 1,500 will be hospitalized (94%), and 260 will likely die. Listeriosis has a mortality rate of 20-30%, according to the FDA. Unfortunately, these numbers indicate that if the doctor diagnoses you with Listeriosis, the chances of survival are low.

According to FDA research, you are 18 times more likely to contract a Listeriosis infection if you are pregnant, and 16–27% of all Listeriosis infections are in pregnant women. While most other adults show signs of gastrointestinal symptoms once contracting Listeriosis, the FDA says a pregnant woman experiences a fever for a few days, and about 20–30% will ultimately miscarry.

The unique thing about Listeria is the incubation period could last up to 70 days. A possible scenario could be a person eating cantaloupe from a farm with a known Listeria outbreak and then 70 days later showing signs of Listeriosis. This was a reality during the Jensen Farms outbreak, where people were terrified that they may have been infected from Listeriosis after eating cantaloupe. Still, they had to wait for six weeks for assurance they were safe.

What Steps Should Industry Take to Prevent or Mitigate the Presence of Listeria?

The first step is to kill Listeria and prevent it from contaminating food. To kill this particular pathogen, heat and/or sanitization is necessary. The best way to avoid contamination is by cooking food, but cleaning and sanitizing regularly is the next best measure if you can’t cook the product.

All food manufacturing facilities need a cleaning and sanitizing routine. Typically, when a Listeria outbreak occurs, it is because of a series of unfortunate errors in quick succession. Facilities need to practice regularly on finding the potential errors in a cleaning/sanitizing system and fix them immediately. This attention to detail and strategy help correct the problem before an issue arises.

The same is important for the kitchen of a restaurant. Keep raw products away from cooked products. Utilize different sections within the kitchen to prep food in various stages, use separate cutting boards and be sure to use different utensils on raw vs. cooked food. Also, have a solid cleaning and sanitizing routine to kill lingering Listeria in the facility.

The second step is a solid continual testing regimen. A testing rotation is an effective tool in the pathogen prevention arsenal. Every facility should utilize an environmental testing program that regularly looks for Listeria in the facility. While all use outside certified labs, some also have in-house labs looking, more frequently, for pathogens. For instance, few fresh produce companies test the wash water for pathogens in every lot. If they find even the smallest trace of any pathogen, including Listeria, they trash it.

Another effective testing technique is “search and destroy”. In the “Search” process your team swabs everything in the facility looking for Listeria in the facility. When you do find an area with Listeria then you swab everything within a radius starting with one foot, expanding to three feet, then even wider to six feet, etc. until you find every major contamination point. Flag those areas as hot spots for continual checks in your future testing rotation.

The extremely important step three is the cold chain. Cold chain systems help reduce the growth of foodborne pathogens. To minimize the growth of pathogens, including Listeria, it is important to keep products cold at all times possible. This includes harvesting, packaging, storing, distributing, and especially. Also, consumers can play a role in helping reduce contamination by keeping food cold and putting it in the refrigerator or freezer as soon as possible. Every minute a product is left at room temperature can mean massive bacteria growth.

Step four is knowing where your food comes from. In the food industry, we call this supply chain compliance and traceability. A relationship of trust between food producers, suppliers and consumers is vital for the food industry. Raw and finished food products are moving through the supply chain rapidly, so good communication is crucial so that contaminated products are removed quickly to contain an outbreak and save lives.

With these practices in place, we can keep the Listeria outbreaks to a minimum. However, extra care is recommended if you are pregnant, immunocompromised, or over the age of 65. In fact, the FDA has a list of foods to avoid or at least cook very thoroughly. These include deli meat, raw vegetables, and unpasteurized milk products, to name a few.

Coronavirus

Pandemic Forced Food Companies to Assess Agility, Focus on Data

By Maria Fontanazza
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Coronavirus

COVID-19 was an eye-opening public health emergency that brought a renewed focus on hygiene and safety across all industries. For McDonald’s Corp., this change prompted a deeper focus on science, including the use of analytical data, and consumer perception, according to the company’s Director of Global Food Safety Gary van Breda. “There are certain things that are important to our supplier base and for us moving forward, [including] harvesting information from different sources— information from audits, social media and being able to know whether we have the right inputs and algorithms in place to generate information to help us make decisions,” said van Breda in a panel discussion during the final episode of the Food Safety Consortium’s Spring Virtual Conference Series in May. These data-driven insights also helped the company take a closer look at attributes such as air quality and how to clean and sanitize high-touch areas in its restaurants.

Many organizations in the food industry were forced to completely change their strategic approach to doing business. “COVID was a once-in-a-generation disruption,” said Jorge Hernandez, vice president, quality assurance at The Wendy’s Company. “Many of the businesses didn’t survive, and many thrived. What’s the difference? In the leadership and approach: To be able to pivot, be flexible, and adapt to the changing circumstances—talk about flying a plane while you were building it.”

One of the key lessons learned from the pandemic was in the ability to remain flexible and make decisions based on the best information available at that time—and using the latest information to continuously improve processes, said Hernandez. For example, many food service and retail establishments took a giant leap forward in providing contactless ordering and delivery to customers—something that became an expectation versus a nice-to-have advantage. From an internal perspective, Wendy’s developed a much stronger connectivity between different job functions (i.e., operations, human resources, management) that helped them strengthen practices, guidance and procedures necessary to thrive during the pandemic.

During the pandemic, food safety fundamentals were brought to the forefront. “Handwashing became so critical. It would be silly not to take advantage of that moving forward,” said Hernandez. “Before the pandemic this was one of the biggest reasons for foodborne illness [outbreaks]. Now it’s up to us: With this pandemic, to use that momentum to move [these practices] forward and make it part of our routine. We have a unique opportunity to make that change to make safer food.”

FDA

FDA to Begin Testing Samples of Salinas-Grown Lettuce for E. Coli and Salmonella

By Food Safety Tech Staff
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FDA

Watch the on-demand complimentary virtual event in our Food Safety Hazards Series, “Salmonella Detection, Mitigation, Control and Regulation” (Original air date: Thursday, July 15, 2021)As part of ongoing surveillance efforts resulting from recurring outbreaks, the FDA announced that it will conduct direct sampling and testing of lettuce grown in the Salinas Valley region of California. From May through November 2021, the agency will test samples for Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli (STEC), including E. coli O157:H7, and Salmonella spp. Direct sampling will be conducted at commercial cooling and cold storage facilities where field heat is removed from harvested lettuce and product is cold-stored prior to processing. “Sample collection at commercial coolers helps the FDA efficiently obtain samples from multiple farms at centralized locations and facilitates prompt traceback and follow-up if contamination is detected,” according to a CFSAN update.

FDA laboratories plan to test about 500 post-harvest samples of iceberg, leaf and romaine lettuce, with each sample consisting of 10 subsamples (one head of lettuce that is trimmed, cored or wrapped; or romaine lettuce leaves or one package of hearts).

In compliance with COVID-19 safety practices, the agency investigators will preannounce their visits.

Deane Falcone, CropOne
FST Soapbox

E. Coli on the Rise: Lettuce Explain

By Deane Falcone, Ph.D.
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Deane Falcone, CropOne

The CDC estimates that 48 million people in the United States become sick with a foodborne illness each year. Some of the most common of these illnesses include norovirus, Salmonella, and E. coli. Each can result in a range of symptoms, from mild discomfort to serious, life-threatening illnesses. Although the coronavirus pandemic has worked to create a sense of heightened public health awareness, one of these common, yet preventable, foodborne illnesses—E. coli—is still on the rise.

What Is E. coli and How Common Are Infections?

According to the CDC, Escherichia coli (E. coli) are a large and diverse group of bacteria found in the environment, foods, and intestines of people and animals. Most strains of the bacteria are harmless, but certain ones can make you sick, causing diarrhea, urinary tract infections, respiratory illness and pneumonia, or other illnesses.

When it comes to understanding the scale of the problem, upwards of 70,000 Americans are estimated to fall ill because of E. coli each year, thousands of whom require hospitalization. E. coli outbreaks have been occurring with regularity, and the number of cases are increasing instead of slowing down, in frequency. In November 2020 alone, there were three ongoing E.coli outbreaks in the United States, accounting for 56 infections, 23 hospitalizations, and one death. At least one of these outbreaks stemmed from a common target for the bacteria: Romaine lettuce. When it comes to E. coli-contaminated foods, fresh leafy greens such as romaine or spinach are the most common vehicles for E. coli that can pose serious risks to human health.

Leafy Greens: An Ideal Target

Leafy greens are an easy target for E. coli for a number of reasons, the first being their popularity. The public recognition of the health value of consuming greater amounts of fresh leafy greens has correspondingly increased the production area of such produce to meet consumer demand. Crop production over wider areas makes tracking of contamination in the field more difficult and the greater consumption increases chances of eating contaminated leafy greens. This type of produce also grows low to the ground, increasing chances of exposing the edible, leafy portions of the lettuce to contaminated water. Finally, other vegetables are often cooked prior to consumption, killing the bacteria, whereas romaine and other leafy greens are often consumed raw.

Once this type of produce is exposed to contaminants, several characteristics of leaf surfaces make removal of bacteria such as E. coli difficult. Studies have shown that, at the microscopic level, the “roughness” or shape of the leaf surface can influence the degree to which bacteria adheres to leaves. Bacteria have specific protein fibers on their surface that are involved in the attachment of the bacteria to the leaf surface and this has been shown to be dependent on the surface roughness of the leaf. Other factors include the “pores” on leaf surfaces—stomata—through which plants take up carbon dioxide and release oxygen and water vapor. Pathogenic E. coli has been observed to enter such stomatal pores and therefore is often very resistant to removal by washing. Moreover, the density of stomata within leaves can vary between different varieties of lettuce or spinach and so affects the degree of E. coli attachment. Additional factors such as leaf age, damage and amount of contaminating bacteria also affect how effectively bacteria adhere to the leaves, making washing difficult.

Are E. Coli Outbreaks Avoidable?

Unfortunately, E. coli outbreaks will likely remain prevalent because of the challenge of interrogating all irrigation water for large and widespread production fields. Once microbial contaminants are present on fresh leafy produce, their complete removal by washing cannot be guaranteed, and it is very difficult to monitor every plot of crops continuously. However, there is a solution to this problem: Controlled environment agriculture (CEA). CEA is an broad term used for many varieties of indoor plant cultivation and can be defined as a method of cultivating plants in an enclosed environment, using technology to ensure optimal growing conditions.

Because outbreaks caused by E. coli-contaminated produce are most often due to produce coming into contact with contaminated irrigation water, indoor growing provides an ideal solution with zero reliance on irrigation water. It also offers a sealed environment with virtually no risk of contamination from animal excrement or other pathogen sources. Indoor farming also makes additional features possible that enhance safety including the use of purified water and handling done only by staff wearing protective clothing (for the plants) including lab coats, hair nets, and gloves. No ungloved hand ever comes into contact with the produce either during growth or in packaging. These standards are nearly impossible to achieve in a traditional farm setting.

Using hydroponic technology enables farming in a clean and contaminant-free, indoor environment. Applying best hygienic practices with this growing model provides safe and clean growth in a sealed, controlled environment, with virtually no risk of illness-causing pathogens.

At this point, not everyone can access food coming from a clean, indoor facility. At the consumer level the best way to avoid E. coli infection remains simply being diligent when it comes to washing. Even if produce is labeled “triple-washed,” if it was grown outdoors, the consumer should always wash it again. Or better yet, look for indoor, hydroponically-grown produce to further mitigate the risk.

Although these outbreaks will continue, as they do, we suspect more consumers will embrace indoor-grown produce and this emerging form of agriculture as a safer alternative. As consumers increasingly understand the advantages of indoor growing, such as enhanced quality and longer shelf life, the popularity of this growth method will increase. Eventually, a greater quantity of the most commonly-infected produce will come from these controlled environments, gradually producing an overall safer and healthier mass product.

Robert Galarza, TruTrace Technologies
FST Soapbox

Tracking an Outbreak: Creating a More Transparent Food Supply Chain with Blockchain

By Robert Galarza
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Robert Galarza, TruTrace Technologies

Despite what our parents told us, it’s not always healthy to eat our vegetables. In late 2020, 40 people contracted E. coli from leafy greens in the United States. By the time the outbreak was declared over, 20 victims had been hospitalized and four developed kidney failure. On top of the human cost, the food distribution businesses involved spent millions of dollars on public information as well as tracing the tainted vegetables and removing them from the market.

The USDA estimates that dealing with foodborne diseases cost $15.6 billion annually. Inefficient and painstaking guesswork is required with every incident, trying to find where the outbreak originated, and locate every shipment that may or may not have come into contact with that diseased strain which must then be recalled, as there’s no way to know for sure what has been affected. And by the time the original culprit is found, the malady may have spread so far that there is no choice but to recall and destroy tons of potentially wholesome products.

What if all this waste—not to mention dozens of infections—could be avoided? What if a foolproof, secure and constantly updating system could track the original tainted produce back to the farm it came from and confirm every employee, transport, and container it has been in contact with on the way? This technology exists today, ready to make food distribution not just safer but also more transparent, efficient and cost effective. It’s called blockchain.

Anyone with a passing familiarity with blockchain knows the technology was originally developed to track and safeguard cryptocurrency transactions. And while Bitcoin and its competitors definitely put the crypto in currency by being inscrutable to outsiders, it’s hard to call food supply chains a lot less complex. It is the vital importance of making that complexity accessible and understandable that makes blockchain the perfect way to futureproof distribution.

What Is Blockchain, Really?

Blockchain is a secure and decentralized ledger that tracks and records transactions. The keywords that indicate why this is an ideal solution for food supply businesses are “secure” and “decentralized.”

More than any other ledger system, blockchain is secure against tampering. Blockchain transactions can’t be altered or hidden, because every change is tracked and recorded and must be approved across the entire system. This system is also decentralized. Instead of one single ledger where a tiny mistake hidden on one obscure ledger could throw off an entire operation, blockchain distributes the whole ledger to all sources across a network, so anyone with the required permissions can see changes across the entire system in real time. When one person makes changes on their version of the ledger, all stakeholders across the network must confirm those changes, and the system remembers where and when they were made.

By distributing the records across different systems and always tracking changes, blockchain eliminates the guesswork and busywork of finding any individual item, when and how it was altered, and by whom. A simple search pinpoints any given item’s previous, current and future position in a supply chain. That search also reveals any other items with which it is shared space. Where once disease outbreaks meant painstaking searches and expensive purges of product, blockchain makes isolating infected produce easy and precise, saving capital and even lives, especially when time is a factor.

Transparency Is Time

When tracking products, blockchain’s unique advantages simply slice time off the process. By distributing its records, blockchain removes harmful lag between parties knowing when changes are made to a single master ledger. There is no need to wait for someone earlier on in the supply chain to update their documents, then for a central office to confirm and collate that update before the information can move further down the line. All stakeholders with the proper permissions can get a full view of inventory, finances, and concerns — all updated in real time the moment a change takes place.

Banks, suppliers, retailers and more can share immediate access to live changes in a system using blockchain. Keeping everyone updated becomes streamlined, tamper-proof and completely trustworthy. Suppliers and retailers can study trends in the ledger and see their partners taking out loans or expanding inventory space, allowing everyone to anticipate each others’ needs and react to crises like tainted produce much faster.

Everyone Knows Everything

In an emergency, the most important questions are often who knows what, where is the information that will lead to tracking down the problem, and more importantly, who has it? With blockchain, there’s no need to follow a trail of evidence in hopes of finding the original ledger where the problem appears, because the distributed network automatically upgrades universally across all systems.

Any mistake appears everywhere at once and can be caught by any number of parties, who are alerted in real time to every change. This creates redundant failsafes to prevent errors and catch problems. Not only are causes easier to track, but operational mistakes and execution errors are caught immediately. Partners can update schedules and adjust shipments, confident that everyone involved is automatically informed.

Way Beyond Bitcoin

Blockchain’s origins in cryptocurrency make it an ideal system for tracking and safeguarding transactional pipelines of all sorts, and this makes it uniquely suited to food supply chains. No other system seamlessly records countless transactions across multiple sources while keeping a clean record for all involved. This not only saves crucial time and money during a challenge like an E. coli outbreak, it smooths out longstanding problems in the food distribution industry by adding unprecedented access and redundancy.

Upon adopting this new technology, the food distribution industry will enter a new era of reliability and cooperation as tracking every product from farm to plate becomes the standard. Even without an outbreak to lock down, blockchain will improve every aspect of supply chain management, paving the way for a more efficient and collaborative industry. Our modern world relies on communication and authenticity, and blockchain can only make the truth clearer.

FDA

In a Year of ‘Unprecedented Challenges’ FDA’s Food Program Achieved So Much

By Food Safety Tech Staff
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FDA

Earlier this week FSMA celebrated its 10-year anniversary, and FDA Deputy Commissioner for Food Policy and Response Frank Yiannas reflected on the progress and accomplishments as a result of this legislation, and the path forward. As we round out the first week of 2021, Yiannas is looking back at the achievements of 2020 in the face of the historic COVID-19 pandemic.

“I’m struck by how tirelessly our team members have worked together to help ensure the continuity of the food supply chain and to help keep food workers and consumers alike safe during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Yiannas on the FDA Voices blog. “Their commitment has not wavered in a time when we’re all dealing personally with the impact of the pandemic on our families, schooling our children from home and taking care of elderly parents.”

  • Response to COVID-19. FDA addressed the concern of virus transmission, assuring consumers that COVID-19 cannot be transmitted via food or its packaging. The agency also worked with CDC and OSHA on resources to help promote worker safety and supply chain continuity.
  • Release of the New Era of Smarter Food Safety Blueprint
  • Release of the 2020 Leafy Greens STEC Action Plan with a focus on prevention, response and research gaps
  • Artificial Intelligence pilot program to strengthen the screening of imported foods
  • Proposed Food Traceability Rule issued in an effort to create more recordkeeping requirements for specific foods
  • New protocol for developing and registering antimicrobial treatments for pre-harvest agricultural water
  • Enhanced foodborne outbreak investigation processes and established the outbreak investigation table (via the CORE Network) to disseminate information about an outbreak right when the agency begins its investigation