By: Pooja Sharma

An outbreak is a big problem. Especially so during the holiday season, when people are in a relaxed state and eat whatever they want to. This is especially concerning when the culprit of an outbreak is still looming on retail shelves. As with the outbreak of E. coli in Canada linked to romaine lettuce, no recall has been issued. Investigations into the source of the outbreak are still pending. This brings to light the traceability issues that we have in our food system, a weak link that exists. In recent times, blockchain technology has been used to target this weak link. Could the latest outbreaks in Canada and the United States become poster children for why blockchain and traceability are desperate needs for our food system?

Outbreak! And Another…

The dual E. coli outbreaks in Canada and the United States that have left 2 dead – 1 in the United States and 1 in Canada and several ill are still under investigation. The source of food or foods pending link to the outbreaks haven’t yet come to light. Even though the ‘possible’ source in Canada has been linked to romaine lettuce, the “where” and “what farm” questions are still looming. More than 2 weeks after the Canadian officials urged individuals to avoid eating romaine lettuce until any further follow up on the source of the outbreak, the CDC (US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) announced that it too is investigating an outbreak that is caused by genetically similar strain of bacteria to that of the Canadian outbreak. E. coli O157 is implicated in both outbreaks.

The initial outbreak notice in Canada came out on the 11th of December 2017, with a total of 21 confirmed illnesses. The number increased to 41 by the end of December in Canada and took several others down in US, too. Seventeen to be exact. No recall in either country has been issued yet due to shorter shelf life of food and pendency of the investigations. There are cases that are likely being reported even now, which means that the outbreak is ongoing and the contaminated products are still on the shelf. Even though exposure to romaine lettuce has been identified as a common source, the cause of contamination is still not identified.

Illness Stats

Case Count Map for US (as provided by the CDC) includes: California (3), Connecticut (2), Illinois (1), Indiana (1), Michigan (1), Nebraska (1), New Hampshire (1), New York (1), Ohio (1), Pennsylvania (1), Virginia (1), Vermont (1) and Washington (1) – a total of 17 illnesses. 5 of them have been hospitalized – 2 victims have developed HUS and 1 victim has died.

Case Count for Canada (as provided by the Public Health Agency of Canada) includes: Quebec (14), Newfoundland and Labrador (13), Ontario (8), New Brunswick (5) and Nova Scotia (1) – a total of 41 illnesses. 17 of them have been hospitalized and 1 has died.

What is Blockchain? How Will It Help Traceability?

Manufacturers’ supply chains are complicated. A supply web would be a better comparison than just a chain. They are complex sequences of moving parts that can make full transparency challenging. Blockchain technology makes it easier for the users to track all the transactions simultaneously and in real time. Blockchain, in simple terms, can be put as a way of storing and sharing information across a network of users in an open virtual space. So, any food retailer or manufacturer would be able to know who the supplier has dealt with in a matter of few seconds. And since, transactions are stored at multiple spaces, it is almost impossible to hack and manipulate the system. Due to these reasons and many others, blockchain can easily empower the entire food chain to be more responsive (and responsible) in any foodborne illness outbreak.

Leading by Example

Walmart, that sells around 20% of all the food in the US, has successfully completed 2 blockchain pilot projects. Nestle and Unilever are also considering blockchain technology for the same reason. Before using Blockchain, Walmart did a traceback test on mangoes in one of its stores. It took a total of 6 days, 18 hours, and 26 minutes to trace the food back to its source of produce. However, with blockchain, Walmart can present the information to the consumers or any other authorities in just 2.2 seconds. And moreover, 6 days feels like an eternity when there is an ongoing outbreak. A lot of lives can be saved and outbreak spread prevented if everything could be traced back in a matter of seconds.

Not only will blockchain help in tracing back the foods to their proper source, it will also help in determining the contaminated foods from the safe ones, so that they can securely remain on the shelves while the notorious ones are discarded. This means stability – more targeted recalls, fiscal responsibility, less waste, and faster responses. Right now, all the products of the complete lot are discarded, even if only a few of them are culprits. Blockchain would significantly help in reduction on food waste due to recalls and hopefully, compel companies to make swifter recall decisions for the betterment of public health.

Blockchain would also help in finding out where exactly the contamination occurred, so as to point out the individual culprits. Sometimes negligence during farming is responsible for contamination; other times it is the handling process. Since blockchain operates anonymously, mistakes will be traceable quite easily to the part of the process and the people responsible. Many retailers have sold the products that are contaminated unknowingly, but with blockchain, it will all come to an end.

Blockchain can easily benefit both large and small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs). But the most important challenge still remains – participation. Not all those in food industry have accepted blockchain, and with so much of information being construed, it is still a long way to go before the technology gets successfully deployed.

While We Wait …

The strain of bacteria that is linked to the dual outbreaks and illnesses is E. coli O157, which is a very dangerous type of E. coli. It is a Shiga-toxin producing E. coli (STEC) that produces a potent toxin called verotoxin. This toxin affects the blood vessels and can cause severe cases of bloody diarrhea and HUS. STEC is the leading cause of kidney failure in children. Since even a small infectious dose can result in severe illnesses, it is crucial that food industry and regulators should make extra efforts to keep it out of food. We certainly look forward to advancement in Blockchain technology to achieve this goal.

If you have symptoms related to E. coli infection, such as diarrhea, vomiting, abdominal pain, etc. and you have had eaten romaine lettuce, urgent medical attention is recommended. Canadian health officials recommend the avoidance of romaine lettuce during the pendency of their investigation.