We Track Tweets and Genes. So Why Not Tomatoes?

The recent salmonella outbreak is yet another reminder of the vulnerability of our food supply. It was the latest in a series of food contamination events that have hurt and killed consumers:

Stopping the spread of bacteria that cause the problems will be an ongoing battle. And it’s not just natural bacteria, but any type of tampering that might occur.

While we can’t stop all forms of contamination that might occur, we should be getting better at quickly tracking down the sources of the contamination. What’s needed is a way to track the “chain of custody” for produce from the fields all the way to the grocery store or restaurant.

Apparently this is still pretty challenging to accomplish.  Consequently. the food industry has resisted imposition of expensive tracking systems, according to an article by the Associated Press:

The [food] industry pressured the Bush administration years ago to limit the paperwork companies would have to keep to help U.S. health investigators quickly trace produce that sicken consumers, according to interviews and government reports reviewed by The Associated Press.

Surely there are ways in which improvements can be made. We continue to make strides everywhere in tracking things down to their unit levels. Is the produce industry that different?

We’re Tracking Genes and Conversations

Two areas that come to mind as examples of dramatically improved unit-level tracking are genes and online conversations.

Scientists have successfully mapped the human genome. Amazingly, we now have the ability to track which genes affect in our bodies. From this work, scientists will develop genetic diagnostic tools and therapies.

Entrepreneurs have successfully built platforms that track conversations. Twitter tracks each tweet individually. Many writers use individually tracked tweets as references for blog posts. Being able to reference what people has advanced the cause of accessibility of ideas everywhere.

We continue to get back at unit-level tracking in so many areas. How about produce?

The Tomato Industry’s $250 Million Loss

The timeline below highlights two issues with the lack of well-developed produce tracking processes:

The first reports of salmonella occurred in April. People were getting sick. I assume health officials at various levels of government started to investigate. The outbreak continued in May and June, when the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) issued a warning that tomatoes were suspected of carrying the bacteria.

Now let’s stop here for a second. Reports started in April and the whole month of May. It took quite a while for the initial warning to be issued.

After the warning, government investigators continued their efforts to track down the exact point of origin for the salmonella. In total, 1,700 samples of soil, water and tomatoes were analyzed. But still, investigators were unable to pinpoint tomatoes as the source for the salmonella.

On July 17, the FDA cleared tomatoes as carriers of salmonella. The focus turned to jalapeño peppers as suspects.

So the tale of the timeline?

  1. People have been exposed to the risk of salmonella for four months now. For two months, no one had any idea of the source. For two more months, investigators were tracking down tomatoes. More than 1,300 people have become sick with this particular salmonella strain.
  2. The tomato industry lost $250 million after the FDA issued its warning about tomatoes.

One reaction to this? From the New York Times:

Industry leaders have said they hope to get compensation from Congress to make up for losses, and those who are to appear Thursday said they also planned to demand a stricter burden of proof before the F.D.A. blames a particular food product for any future outbreak.

It’s an understandable request. But the industry itself can do more to reduce these problems as well.

Post 9/11 Legislation and Industry Efforts to Manage Cost

Tracking a full chain of custody for produce was one of the proposals for the post 9/11 Bioterrorism Act of 2002. The costs to implement the legislation were a concern to the industry. As the New York Times reports, the actual legislation does not sufficiently meet chain of custody requirements:

The rule requires importers, processors and distributors to keep track of where they buy produce and where it goes. A major hurdle facing investigators in this outbreak, however, is that processors frequently repack boxes of tomatoes to meet a buyer’s demands. In doing so, officials said, they are not required to record the tomatoes’ farm, state or even country of origin.

The rule requires only that produce handlers keep track of food one step back and one step forward in the supply chain and does not apply to retailers or growers. Because the rule does not specify the format for records, investigators are sifting through a hodgepodge of paper trails to identify the source of the contaminated produce.

I understand industry resistance to new regulations which can add costs to their operations. Particularly an industry like agriculture, which we’ve been doing for what…10,000 years?

Unfortunately, the industry’s success in reducing the regulatory burden may have come back to bite them. Tomatoes were not the culprit in the salmonella outbreak, but the existing tracking infrastructure hindered the speedy determination of that fact. With the business losses and loss in consumer confidence, industry leaders are waking up to the reality of their lobbying success:

“In retrospect, yes, if they (the regulations) had been broader and a bit more far-reaching, it could have helped with this,” said Robert Brackett, senior vice president of the Grocery Manufacturers Association.

What’s Needed to Unit Level Tracking

Some things that come to mind in tracking produce at the unit level:

Unique Identifiers for Units of Produce

Tweets have unique identifiers. So do FriendFeed entries, genes and vehicles. Assign unique identifiers to produce at the unit level. The picture to the right shows a typical unit of tomatoes in the grocery store: 6 tomatoes on their original vine. There’s a label per bunch of tomatoes. How about using that label to record the unique identifier for the tomatoes? The unit-level IDs are assigned at the field level.

The FedEx Approach: Every Step of the Way Is Recorded

Once we’ve got unique identifiers, every point along the way from the field to the grocer or restaurant is recorded. Location, time. This system needs to be quick, efficient and relatively inexpensive like FedEx.

Web-Based Lookup and Retrieval

Once all this great information is assembled, it needs to be easily accessible. A hosted repository that appropriate parties can tap as needed.

Once an outbreak occurs, officials can find the unique identifiers on any suspected produce. They look up the unique ID, and immediately know where to focus their investigative efforts. No more fumbling around, running forensics to determine from where the food came.

With quick access to the chain of custody, people’s health and lives can be spared, business losses are minimized and consumers can be more confident in the food they eat.

We’ve put a man on the moon. We’ve confirmed water on Mars. We’ve mapped the human genome. We track conversations.

How about tracking our food supply?


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