“FDA, CDC, and state health authorities are investigating an outbreak of illnesses caused by E. coli O157:H7 in the U.S.”
Despite the U.S. fresh produce industry having implemented the most scientifically-informed and rigorous food safety practices in the world, this is a refrain that has become all too familiar in recent years. The romaine industry has been hit particularly hard as of late.
In early 2018, 210 illnesses in 36 states were traced back to romaine lettuce contaminated with E. coli from the Yuma growing region. Later that year, another 62 E. coli-related illnesses in 17 states were linked to romaine lettuce production, this time in the Santa Maria growing region. In the fall of 2019, one year later, romaine tainted by E. coli was connected to the Salinas growing region, ultimately sickening 167 people in 27 states.
Romaine is far from the only culprit. Over the past several years, Salmonella has been linked to fruit mixes, papayas, vegetable trays, pre-cut melons and sprouts. Hepatitis A has been connected to blackberries and frozen strawberries.
In each of these events, we are reminded that the responsibility for food safety is not just limited to a few commodities but, rather, is the collective responsibility of the entire fresh produce industry, and is an obligation that extends throughout the supply chain.
Following the E. coli outbreak in the fall of 2018, FDA called on the leafy greens supply chain to adopt several recommendations aimed at enhancing the safety of leafy greens, with a particular emphasis on traceability. These recommendations have tremendous applicability to the broader fresh produce industry, as well.
Specifically, “FDA strongly encourages the entire leafy greens supply chain to adopt traceability best practices and state-of-the-art technology to assure quick, accurate and easy access to key data elements from farm to fork when leafy greens are involved in a potential recall or outbreak.”
While this may already be happening in certain segments of the industry, we must endeavor to make the adoption of real-time food safety documentation and supply chain-wide traceability technology universal. By and large, we remain an audit and checklist-driven industry. Most of the data we collect still resides in hard copy form, which limits our ability to examine trends or develop key metrics that allow us or our supply chain partners to monitor performance. Furthermore, in a recall event, we are slow to react because we become mired in record searches that are reliant on many parties and often paper records. The consequences can be catastrophic, both in terms of public health and financial exposure.
This is where Western Growers excels; identifying the existential threats to our industry and developing innovative, cost-effective solutions to ensure our members are able to continue farming into the next generation. The risks related to food safety certainly qualify.
Western Growers has developed an industry-driven, comprehensive food safety and traceability system—intended to be adopted by each partner in the supply chain—designed to limit both foodborne illnesses and liability. Simply put, it will deliver a best-in-class supply chain program with commercial products that consist of three interrelated components: food safety, traceability and financial protection.
The first task is to minimize the risks of contamination, which requires adherence to good food safety practices—which, in turn, requires verification and documentation. To achieve this task, we have leveraged proven and vetted technology to capture real-time food safety data collected in the field. Using this data, the technology allows for mutually agreed upon risk-based metrics to be shared between buyers and sellers up and down the supply chain, giving real-time visibility to compliance and corrective actions.
The second step is to deliver traceability from the field to the end consumer, which is accomplished through Produce Traceability Initiative (PTI) solutions that provide simple-to-use software to print case labels, and support all workflows, from the shed to the line to the field. It can also provide item level traceability using QR codes that enable consumers to find real-time food safety or other product information, while offering traceback and forward to immediately narrow an investigation or recall. This technology can readily integrate with blockchain for full supply chain visibility.
The third leg of the program stool is financial protection that will allow the affected parties to recover from a contamination event. In such an event, participating operations will have access to top-of-the-line crisis management, legal counsel and claim adjudication teams. The insurance policy, which is provided by Western Growers Insurance Services (WGIS), will provide participating operations with funds for business interruption, brand restoration, product refusal and third party expenses. Because of the food safety and traceability components of this solution, the risks can be aggressively priced based on verified practices, thereby reducing the premiums and creating the option of pooling the risks in a captive or alternative structure.
Data Collection and Analysis
One final potential benefit is the opportunity to build anonymous, aggregated data subsets for use by Western Growers to address member issues and inform policy development. The food safety systems of the future will be driven by data, which will enhance preventive controls in the field, help the supply chain identify trends, and ultimately lead us to a predictive state where we can identify and mitigate contamination events before they happen. This will require that data be collected and transferred in real time, and will require systems that are integrated. The Western Growers solution will lead the way.
Western Growers, working with best-in-class technology providers, is currently testing this solution in a small supply chain in order to ensure that it can be easily integrated into any member operation. We will soon make this platform widely available and encourage those interested in the next generation of food safety to contact us for more information or to become one of our early adopters.
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Western Growers members care deeply for the food they grow, the land they sustain, the people they employ, and the community in which they live.