Batch of romaine lettuces were found to be contaminated with E. coli in 2018. © Getty Images
Batch of romaine lettuces were found to be contaminated with E. coli in 2018. © Getty Images

Traceability is Achilles heel of US food system

A lack of traceability and transparency is the Achilles heel of the US food system, according to the country’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

The FDA plans to overcome challenges in the system using an approach its calling “a new era of smarter food safety”, which will leverage technology such as blockchain, artificial intelligence, and internet of things.

Frank Yiannis, deputy commissioner for Food Policy and Response at the FDA, said: “In my view, today’s food system is amazing, but it does have one major Achilles heel: a lack of traceability and transparency. You don’t have to look too far to see what a lack of traceability costs us.”

He referred to dangerous food outbreaks in the US, including an E. coli outbreak caused by romaine lettuce in 2018 and a salmonella outbreak between 2008 and 2009, which was traced back to peanut butter made at the Peanut Corporation of America’s factory. 

The peanut butter salmonella outbreak lasted approximately seven months, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, before it was successfully traced back and resolved.

Yiannis said technology enabled “food traceability at the speed of thought”.

Yiannis was part of a pilot programme using blockchain technology to trace mangoes from farms in Mexico to two stores in North America. He said that the entire supply chain put data on the blockchain and it reduced the time it took to trace mangoes from seven days to 2.2 seconds.

The adoption of new and emerging technology will improve the time it takes to track and trace contaminated food. Data analytics and predictive analytics will help identify safety risks and improve preventative methods, while incorporating new initiatives will advance safety in business models across the supply chain, according to the FDA.

“New technologies and approaches, one of which is blockchain, have the potential to provide this level of traceability as part of a digitized food system,” Yiannis said.

The FDA said a public meeting would take place to develop “a more digital, traceable and safer system”. The meeting will be held in October in Washington DC to gain stakeholder input for a strategic blueprint that will tackle public health challenges, such as contaminated food.

This blueprint will be published in early 2020 and will outline actions that will be taken. This builds on the FDA Food Safety Modernisation Act, signed in 2011.

Yiannis said “a new era of smarter food safety” was “a new approach to food safety, one that recognises and builds on the progress made in the past, but also incorporates the use of new technologies that are being used in society and business sectors all around us”. 

“These include blockchain, sensor technology, the internet of things, and artificial intelligence to create a more digital, traceable, and safer food system. This new approach creates shared value for all stakeholders – farmers, food producers, regulators, consumers, and the planet.”

Meanwhile, fast food restaurants McDonald’s and Burger King procured burgers from farms linked to deforestation, despite commitments to eliminate deforestation from global supply chains.

UK MPs have also called for food procured by the government to be “sustainable by default” to help address climate concerns, in a report by the Environmental Audit Committee.

And the IBM food blockchain platform has worked with many supermarkets and suppliers to trace food supply chains.

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