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Of Maggie Fox
Twice this year, federal health officials warned Americans not to eat Roman lettuce at all and asked the stores to throw away all their supplies.
It was not because all the Roman lettuce in the country was contaminated. It was because there was not a good way to quickly understand where the contaminated lettuce came from. When people started dying of E. coli infections last spring, the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention decided that the safest bet was just to tell people to stop eating it.
It took weeks to restrict the spring epidemic in Yuma, Arizona. It took several days to track down the epidemic this fall in central California. At best, when someone fell ill, it would be possible to understand what they were eating and where they came from, so that the specific farm or processor or distributor could be shut down.
On the contrary, it takes days to discover an epidemic, more days to ask people what they have recently eaten to try to find a food that all the sick have in common and then sometimes weeks to find a common source for that food.
"It's very difficult and time-consuming," said Dr. Laura Gieraltowski, who heads the CDC response team to food epidemics. "Grocery stores may not keep the box that has the labels in the distribution center or where the grower was." And right now, without that box, many stores do not have a record of where the food comes from.
"We are in a stimulating position because we have not been able to completely isolate it from a specific grower or region to issue a mandatory recall," Dr. Fellow FDA commissioner Scott Fellow said last week.
It's a frustrating and inefficient process, and now the FDA is looking for a mega-dealer to solve the problem: Walmart.
The FDA has hired Walmart's vice president of food security, Frank Yiannas, as vice commissioner for food and veterinary medicine. Gottlieb hopes that Yianna can help persuade the US food industry to adopt a computerized system that tracks every head of lettuce, or box of mangoes, or packet of chicken parts, along each step of the transition from a farm to the Or at the restaurant.
"One of its specific areas of expertise is the development of blockchain tracking and tracing technology," said Gottlieb.
Blockchain is a shortened term for a way to keep accurate records of transactions with date and time and hard to edit. Used in food distribution, it would be a safe way to track food as it is harvested, processed, packaged, distributed and sold.
Gottlieb sees the blockchain as a useful tool to tame the free-for-all system that gets many types of food in the US table now.
"We would like to link the epidemic back to a specific grower, a specific farm, a specific distributor," said Gottlieb.
"We hope to be able to implement some of those same technologies in the coming years … so that when we go out with a warning, it's not a general warning not to eat Roman lettuce."
Walmart itself is still trying to implement the technology, said company spokeswoman Molly Blakeman. The first step is to get all of your food suppliers to buy from IBM's information technology.
"All green leafy vegetable suppliers should be able to track their products on farms (depending on the production lot) in seconds, not days. To do this, suppliers will be required to capture event information traceability, end-to-end using the IBM Food Trust network, "Walmart said in a letter to suppliers last September.
The company does not expect its suppliers to comply before the next year. Some still use paper records.
"Some of them have not been digitized yet, they need to get that technology," said Blakeman. "We have worked with IBM to make it accessible". The company is trying to negotiate an escalator for farms and distributors supplying fresh products, so that they pay according to their size.
But if it works, the products would be labeled and scanned at every stage of the journey from farm to processing to packaging and delivery, so that when there was an epidemic of foodborne illness, health officials would have saved days or even weeks of traceback work, and could more quickly get specific warnings for consumers.
This could mean having a choice of safe Romaine lettuce during a recall. And it will save the stores and distributors from the huge losses that they often suffer when they have to extract a product from the shelves.
As a start, the FDA has drawn up an agreement for producers to begin labeling Roman lettuce. It's a voluntary process now, the United Fresh Produce Association and Produce Marketing Association say in a joint statement. "Your records can delete your company from a recall," he says to the members.
In the first place, what the blockchain will not do is stop the onset of food-borne outbreaks.
The FDA is under pressure from consumer groups to delay a rule that would require growers to test their contamination irrigation. The spring outbreak of E. coli that killed five people and caused more than 200 was attributed to Roman lettuce grown in Yuma, Arizona. He was eventually blamed for contaminated channel water.
Likewise, an epidemic in 2006 was traced to California-grown spinach that may have been contaminated with wild boar manure or, perhaps, from nearby herds of cattle.
The Food Safety Modernization Act of 2011 directed the FDA to strengthen food safety legislation and the agency issued a final rule in 2015 that gave growers up to the start of this year , entering in 2022 to test the quality of the water. But the FDA has delayed the implementation of the rule.
"The Trump administration is willing to put the health of Americans at risk to appease Big Ag and food companies," said George Kimbrell, legal director at the Center for Food Safety. "This shameful delay could literally cost the lives of Americans."
The Center for Food Safety and the Center for Science in the Public Interest want the FDA to accelerate these rules, not delay them.
"Americans deserve to know that their products have not grown or rinsed in water contaminated with animal feces," said CSPI deputy director for legislative affairs Sarah Sorscher.
Gottlieb denies that his agency has delayed the rule for political reasons.
"We are fully committed to implementing this rule," he said. "There is nothing that I have withdrawn or postponed that I believe could have had an impact on food safety," he added, saying that the FDA was moving "at full steam" on food safety.
But they said that the rule was "very difficult to implement".
"It's not like we've made a political decision to delay it," he said.
Contaminated food is an extremely common problem. The CDC estimates that the germs in food make 48 million Americans sick every year – this is one in six cases. About 128,000 are made ill enough to be hospitalized, and 3,000 die. The germs to blame include listeria, salmonella, E. coli and cyclospora.