Post-romaine lettuce outbreaks: Lessons in traceability
If there is one thing we've learned in the past six months, it’s that the current traceability practices in the produce industry were not effective in tracing back the root of the outbreaks. Where do we go from here? How will supply chain digitization and AI play a key role in solving these issues?
Recent Outbreak (#2): In June 2018, the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention announced that since the first romaine lettuce E. Coli outbreak (March '13), 197 people across 35 states had become ill, and five people had died. Although authorities had no way of knowing exactly where the outbreak came from, their investigation lead them to believe that the contaminated produce came from somewhere in Arizona.
First Outbreak (#1): Last holiday season, people in North America were affected by a first romaine lettuce outbreak. Dozens of people became ill and two people died in Canada and the U.S. due to the E. coli 0157:H7 outbreak. Yet, the source of the contamination was never found.
In less than six months, millions of people were directly threatened by no less than two deadly outbreaks, and the source of the contamination is still unknown. These food safety crises have huge negative effects on the consumer's confidence and for businesses across the globe. In May, romaine lettuce sales fell nearly by 45%, according to the WSJ, and prices for whole heads of romaine were down 60%.
How can this happen in such a technology-driven time, where smartwatches can educate us on our sleeping patterns, cars basically drive themselves and meat is starting to be engineered and produced in laboratories?
When it comes to food safety, we cannot compromise. Consumers solely rely on food safety leaders to pave the way to a confidence-based and reliable food supply chain.
Many supply chain quality processes are still paper-based. End-to-end traceability, from raw materials to the end user, is a big challenge. Consolidation of raw material, lack of knowledge of suppliers, mislabeling, incomplete shipping information, unreliable records and lack of data collection are just a few of the reasons traceability is sub-optimal.
The truth is that the food industry is a late adopter when it comes to supply chain digitization, and for many reasons.
Where to Go from Here: Supply Chain Digital Traceability
According to a recent PwC study on the rise of Industry 4.0 (2016), 33% of 2,000 respondents said that their company has started to digitize their supply chains, and 72% expect to have completed this process within the next five years.
By connecting the dots of your supply chain, not only are you making it more intelligent, but also more effective. From a quality and safety standpoint, one of the many advantages to digital traceability within the supply chain is the fact that quality management costs will be lowered, while increasing real-time visibility into quality processes and optimization via big data analytics.
Coming back to the lettuce outbreak, some would argue that even if you connect the dots of existing data with a digital supply chain, that may not be enough because the information needed was not entered – like in microbiological testing. This is where enabling technologies like AI, IoT and blockchain come into play. Blockchain, as a distributed ledger, is also a promising tool to create transparency and ensure data integrity.
Digital traceability is quite promising. Nonetheless, there are challenges currently affecting its mass deployment.
The first one is the adoption of new technologies, which is always a challenge, especially when under pressure to increase productivity and profitability. Most people and companies don’t know where to start, but a proven traceability expert can help meet specific needs and serve as a guide throughout the entire process.
The second challenge is cost. Implementing full traceability is initially expensive. However, considering that the average cost of a recall is estimated at $10M, the return on investment is worth it. Specialized technology suppliers can offer highly flexible solutions to maximize these returns.
End-to-end supply chain digital traceability is a promising avenue to control, track and trace products for food safety concerns.
By leveraging AI, IoT and blockchain technologies, OPTEL GROUP, a global traceability leader and expert has developed unique traceability platforms to help small producers and Fortune 500 companies alike to tackle food safety challenges thanks to an intelligent supply chain.