Consumers today want to know much more about their food. They're interested in how it's made, but they also want to know more about how it got from the farm to the factory to the grocery store to their plates. And companies are responding to this need. According to Statista, the global food traceability market is predicted to be worth more than $16 billion by 2022.
Many different companies are working to improve traceability of food products and ingredients. They're using new technologies and different systems so consumers can easily know the backstory of products they are about to eat.
Manufacturers and retailers benefit from this kind of information as well. They can easily find out if a product may be contaminated based on where it was grown or sourced. They can determine if a commonly faked product is the real thing. They can find out the time it took for a product to get to the comsumer and if there are any problems in the supply chain. And they can pinpoint the source of consumers' favorite ingredients in order to keep using them.
Studies show how important traceability and transparency are to consumers, with 75% of them saying they will switch to a brand that provides more in-depth product information, according to Label Insight and the Food Marketing Institute. Companies like SafeTraces are investing in technology to bring extremely specific traceability systems for food and ingredients. And Ripe.io and FlavorWiki have even come together to add a traceability aspect to feedback on how food tastes — allowing clients to know how their products taste throughout production and along the supply chain. Ingredients company Olam invested in technology that provides manufacturers with deep information about where products come from and sustainability practices. Traceability is an important aspect in food safety, as shown by recent recalls of romaine lettuce contaminated with E. coli. And initiatives like SmartLabel from the Consumer Brands Association — previously known as the Grocery Manufacturers Association — give food manufacturers an easy way to provide more information to consumers.
This report details several aspects of the food traceability trend:
How manufacturers and retailers should respond to consumers' mounting interest in traceability
SafeTraces' unique traceability technology
How the partnership between Ripe.io and FlavorWiki can help manufacturers produce better products
What Olam's traceability technology does for manufacturers and consumers
How traceability can played a role in produce outbreaks
Potential of SmartLabel to provide the traceability information consumers want
We hope you enjoy this deep dive into traceability.
Report: Consumers want increased transparency from retailers and brands
According to the Food Marketing Institute and Label Insight, 75% of consumers say they're willing to switch to products that provide in-depth information beyond what's on packaging.
By: Jessi Devenyns
Across generations and platforms, American shoppers are insisting on having a clear view into the food that they are consuming.
A recent report from Label Insight and the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) revealed that shoppers are increasingly demanding transparency and a closer connection to their food — so much so that 75% say they'll switch to a brand that provides more in-depth product information, beyond what’s provided on the physical label. When shoppers were asked the same question in 2016, just 39% agreed they would switch brands.
The report noted that among the 47% of American households that have someone following a diet or health program, 61% say they're willing to pay more for products with in-depth product information, and 89% said they'll switch to a new product if they're not satisfied with the information that's there.
Twenty-six percent of consumers surveyed said they had shopped for groceries online in the past 30 days. Among these, 76% said they expect to see more product information when shopping online than in-store.
Retailers have taken note of this trend, but they should continue to track its evolution and dig into what it means for various consumer groups. For Boomers and Gen X-ers transparency this means ingredients lists and nutritional information, according to the FMI/Label Insight research. Millennials, while also paying attention to those factors, tend to give more weight than older generations to allergen information, certifications and claims, animal welfare, fair trade and labor practices. However, the importance of transparency overall was consistent across generations.
Similarly, most consumers are willing to do the research required to learn more about the products they're perusing. From taking out smartphones in the grocery aisle to doing a quick Google search during an online order, shoppers want easy access to information regarding health benefits, ingredients, dietary claims and more.
Grocers and brands should pay attention because transparency is no longer optional. With more than seven in 10 shoppers saying they are willing to switch from their usual brand to one that provides more in-depth information, it is worth investigating how to provide shoppers with this insight. Transparency can build consumer trust and boost loyalty at a time when retailers competition is as fierce as ever.
How can brands get on board? By getting creative and listening to their customers. Earlier this year, Hershey partnered with Sourcemap to show consumers where the components of Hershey's Milk Chocolate with Almonds and Reese's Peanut Butter Cups came from. Additionally, freeze-dried fruit company Crunchies includes this traceability information on all of its packaging. Cargill even tested blockchain technology that allowed consumers to trace their individual Thanksgiving turkey from the store where they bought it to the farm that raised it.
As this trend continues, the shelf life is bound to be short for remaining food and beverage brands that are not ready and willing to be more transparent.
Article top image credit: GMA
Thinking outside the box: How SafeTraces tracks food, not packages
The traceability startup uses DNA to track and identify items ranging from apples to oils. It is working with UL and JBT FoodTech to expand its reach.
While Anthony Zografos was not one of them, the story caught his eye. And the thing that concerned him the most was the weeks it took to pinpoint the source of contamination. Many consumers may have had those melons in their refrigerators the whole time, ticking time bombs to make the consumers who purchased them deathly ill.
"In this day and age, if I can look at my shirt and can tell right away where it's from, you should be able to do this for food, right?" Zografos told Food Dive. "...I found out that no, that's not the case at all. So that's the problem I set out to solve. How can you identify the origin of food pretty much instantly?"
Zografos, who has a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering and previously worked as chief operating officer of tech company Compact Particle Acceleration Corporation, wanted to solve this problem. There are two important reasons to make this information available, he said: food safety and guaranteeing authenticity.
Most traceability applications on the market do a good job of keeping track of food packaging. Zografos wanted to create something unique. He founded SafeTraces, which creates DNA-level tracking that is applied directly to food products.
"The product information stays with the product itself, whether it's apples, or beans, or grains, or oils, or a caviar," Zografos said. "You name it ... we've done it. So basically, you can pick a grain out of a bag, or you can pick an apple out of a case or you can pick … a single row out of the tin of caviar and you can identify where it was produced, when it was produced."
While SafeTraces has been around for a few years, it announced high level partnerships in 2019. That summer, the tracking company announced a deal with safety science giant UL to enhance palm oil traceability. This partnership gives businesses dealing with palm oil — a common food ingredient that has a reputation for being farmed using substandard sustainability and human rights practices — a potentially easy solution to guarantee the ingredient's source.
SafeTraces also announced a partnership with JBT FoodTech, a leading producer of food processing and packaging equipment. This partnership has not yet been fully defined, SafeTraces Vice President of Business Development Ulrike Hodges told Food Dive, but the companies are looking for a way to pursue food processing while integrating SafeTraces technology.
How it works
While other methods to trace food focus on barcodes on food packaging, SafeTraces uses something much smaller: DNA.
Zografos said the company extracts food-safe DNA markers from seaweed. Those markers are converted into something read like a barcode and applied to the surface of the food. It's received generally recognized as safe status from the FDA and is completely imperceptible, he said.
"Obviously if you use it on caviar, … you can't really afford to affect the taste," Zografos said. "People pay thousands of dollars for an ounce ... and they will not be willing to tolerate any changes."
"People are looking to tell this story and, you know, a way to do that is by talking about the origin of the grain and its journey, and ... our solution helps do that."
Founder and CEO, SafeTraces
In fact, Zografos said, there's nothing unusualabout DNA, which is completely natural and a part of every food item, he said — unlike chemical additives. The solution also doesn't impact shelf life, product appearance or chemistry. He said it's introduced to food in concentrations of parts-per-billion.
SafeTraces is used by many different food makers, but mostly fresh produce companies. There's vast demand for this kind of traceability technology — and vast opportunity, he said.
The UL partnership to trace palm oil is one of these opportunities. In the press release announcing it, Zografos talked about the deep-seated problems with palm oil.
"The human, environmental and financial toll of this problem is enormous," he said. "The first-mile, from plantation to mill, is where the risk of deforestation and labor exploitation is greatest and where traceability is weakest. SafeTraces is thrilled to partner with a global leader like UL to securely trace palm oil back to individual plantations in a way that is operationally and financially attractive for our customers."
UL, which provides third-party audits and inspections, said in the press release it will use the partnership "to tackle the palm oil sourcing problem on the ground, delivering unprecedented control of and insight into a critically important food supply chain."
Another project in development would make it easier to trace grains. Zografos told Food Dive many of the world's consumers want to know exactly where their bread comes from and whetherthe wheat it is made from is local and fresh.
"People are looking to tell this story and, you know, a way to do that is by talking about the origin of the grain and its journey, and ... our solution helps do that," he said.
Authenticity is an important reason to trace food. Adulteration has been a problem with some items, with less expensive versions of items like caviar, oil, honey and fish being mislabeled as their pricier counterparts. With a solution like SafeTraces, the end consumer can be sure an item is what he believes it to be. After all, Zografos said, even if a producer uses blockchain to meticulously track a box of Washington apples, there's no guarantee that someone along the line didn't switch some out for less expensive varieties.
Finding that one critical point
Food safety is another application of SafeTraces technology. Like the listeria outbreak that first caught Zografos' attention, consumers need to know quickly if they have an item that is contaminated.
Blockchain, which Zografos said he considers a tool in the traceability toolbox, is useful. But in order to make it work, it requires buy-in from every link in the supply chain.
With the current infrastructure around blockchain, a product can be traced by where it has gone in the supply chain. And while that’s important to manufacturers, retailers and those in logistics, it is much less important to consumers. They want to know a few basic things: Is this product safe? Is it authentic? If the answer to either of those questions is no, they want to know where the issue occurred.
"There is usually a single point — a single transformation, if you like — where the product either gains value or acquires risk. From that point on, nothing really happens. It's in a box and it goes from one place to another, and it can go to 20 places before it gets to you."
Founder and CEO, SafeTraces
"The majority of the value or of the risk is introduced at a single point," Zografos said. "It could be the farm, it could be the packing house, it could be the processor. But there is usually a single point — a single transformation, if you like — where the product either gains value or acquires risk. From that point on, nothing really happens. It's in a box and it goes from one place to another, and it can go to 20 places before it gets to you."
With SafeTraces, it’s easier to go back to that one place. If items are checked consistently as they travel through the supply chain, it's quite easy to find, Zografos said.
As SafeTraces improves its technology and continues to forge partnerships, there is great potential.Zografos said the company is likely to work with agricultural commodities, but opportunities may fuel greater expansion — maybe even into other fields like healthcare and pharmaceuticals.
"The possibilities are quite significant," he said.
Article top image credit: SafeTraces
IBM AI and cloud technologies help unlock farm data for food supply companies
Sponsored Content By
The average farm generates an estimated 500,000 data points per day, a number that is expected to reach 4 million by 2036¹. Despite this wealth of available information, the highly fragmented nature of the global food supply chain has hindered its ability to transform these data sets into usable insights that can be shared between growers and enterprises across the ecosystem.
"These days, farmers don't just farm food. They also cultivate data – from drones flying over fields to smart irrigation systems and IoT sensors affixed to combines, seeders, sprayers and other equipment," says Kristen Lauria, general manager of IBM Watson Media and Weather Solutions. "Most of the time, this data is left on the vine – never analyzed or used to derive insights."
But times are changing. The increasing pervasiveness of AI and machine learning combined with the availability of contextual data sources – including satellite imagery, hyperlocal weather forecasts and the Internet of Things (IoT) – signal that agriculture has begun its digital journey.
The IBM Watson Decision Platform for Agriculture is designed to help farmers and enterprises such as food companies, grain processors and produce distributors improve the quality and quantity of crops through data-driven decisions. Built on IBM PAIRS Geoscope from IBM Research, the solution is designed to rapidly process massive, complex geospatial and time-based data sets collected by satellites, drones, aerial flights, millions of IoT sensors and weather models.
Data is collected in a field-specific electronic record and analyzed to generate actionable insights into the environmental, weather and plant conditions that may contribute to a good or bad harvest. This includes insights into irrigation management, pest and disease risk, and cohort analysis for comparing similar subsets of fields.
By enabling access to field-specific data and connecting it to the rest of the food supply chain, the Watson Decision Platform for Agriculture can help deliver:
1. Optimized crop yield visibility for raw material forecasting
The platform analyzes relevant data and compares actual yields against benchmarks from similar fields to help growers identify the areas with the greatest potential for improvement. These capabilities also provide food companies with deeper visibility into:
Field-level yield and quality forecasts that incorporate plant date, weather, imagery and growth stage to derive a projected yield amount and quality level for specific crops.
National crop yield forecasts that apply machine learning to assumed crop mix, satellite imagery, historical data and forecasted weather. This forecast is adjusted using early, statistically-relevant harvest data from local fields to help improve accuracy and reduce bias.
2. Increased trust and transparency
The platform's combination of rich agriculture data, AI and cloud technologies are designed to provide greater control over access to electronic field records and increased visibility into how the information is used across the ecosystem.
3. Higher food quality through traceability
Recent outbreaks of E. coli in beef and romaine lettuce are leading to increasing consumer demand for quality and sustainability in farming practices. Powered by the IBM Blockchain Platform, the Food Trust network supports visibility across virtually the entire agriculture ecosystem, helping to drive accountability and traceability for every step of the food journey.
4. Greater visibility into supplier sustainability
The platform supports responsible farming by identifying and expanding best practices for water and soil management. This includes measuring the impacts of weather, crops and livestock on a field. Recommendations are designed to optimize operations such as irrigation and drainage, helping growers improve quality and sustainability while better managing costs.
The potential benefits of this approach extend beyond raising productivity. Watson Decision Platform for Agriculture could help a livestock company eliminate a certain mold or fungus from feed supply grains or identify the best crop irrigation practices for drought-stricken areas like California. The solution might support the search for the perfect French fry by a fast food chain that needs longer – not fatter – potatoes from its network of growers. Or it might assist a beer distributor in producing a more affordable premium beer by improving barley quality.
To learn more about how IBM can help support your digital transformation initiatives, please visit www.ibm.biz/agriculture.
As more food companies start using blockchain, processors, retailers and consumers will be able to access information about the path food took to get from the field to the plate.
And while traceability is good, it leaves out one major factor that consumers care about when they buy food: How does it taste?
“No matter how sustainable it is, or how it is accessed, taste is the first criteria," Riccardo Accolla, director of digital food science for Ripe.io, told Food Dive. "If it doesn’t taste well, a consumer is not going to buy it again, a producer does not want to produce it again.”
Ripe.io,which uses blockchain and similar distributed ledger technologyto track food products through the supply chain, is branching into tracing flavor. In 2019, the company announced a partnership with FlavorWiki, which has a digital app for consumers to evaluate taste.
Accolla said the partnership will allow clients to find out how their products taste throughout production and the supply chain. As it is getting started, this partnership will focus on fruits and vegetables. Producers, retailers and consumers will be able to get insight letting them know exactly how a product tastes at every step in the food chain — as well as how long it's likely to taste good.
“No matter how sustainable it is, or how it is accessed, taste is the first criteria. If it doesn’t taste well, a consumer is not going to buy it again, a producer does not want to produce it again.”
Director of digital food science, Ripe.io
Daniel Protz, CEO of FlavorWiki, told Food Dive the partnership can help solve one of the pervasive problems in agriculture: the lack of consistency. He said producers, retailers and restaurants want to know more about how a product that was harvested in Africa will taste by the time it gets to a European consumer’s plate — especially the attributes that aren't obvious from looking at it.
“It looks and tastes and feels exactly like the consumer wants,” Protz said. “And that's not so easy for them to trace through that whole distribution chain where you might be going from, ‘OK, this tastes great and it's juicy. It's got the right profile that we want’ to, ‘Hey, wait a second, it came to the next location and now it's really not good.’ ”
While different entities along the supply chainwould benefit from that information, Protz said it makes sense to organize it in some sort of flowchart. Blockchain, he said, is an ideal way to make the information as useful as possible because it contains so much traceable information.
Accolla gave the example of a tomato producer using the system. Through blockchain, data could be captured indicating the soil composition and weather where it was grown, as well as the steps it took through the cold chain and storage facilities. But using FlavorWiki’s taste data, the producer could find out how consumers react to the taste as it moves through the system, pinpointing the freshness and taste peak, as well as best practices for cultivation and transportation.
FlavorWiki’s taste platform meshes well with this incremental tracking system. While most traditional taste tests are done using panels, ranking systems and complex statistics, FlavorWiki has a simple app-based interface where consumers choose between two different ways to describe a product — such as which flavor is more intense, or which attribute the consumer notices first.
Protz said the ease of the app and the sophisticated prediction algorithm makes it possible to get immediate statistically significant feedback on the taste of food. It can easily be used on products throughout the supply chain, and incorporated to pinpoint tastes of a single variety of apple with different growing and storage conditions, or reformulated CPG products.
While the partnership is going to concentrate on produce now, Accolla said Ripe plans to eventually expand to CPG companies looking critically at their ingredients. This could help a manufacturer who is testing a new ingredient, looking to replace an existing one they already use or searching for something that is more sustainable. For example, he said, it could help a company choose between two farms producing organic vanilla. It could also be used to verify the source and taste of an ingredient that is often faked, or even used to help tailor products to consumers.
“It could create a permanent record of data around personal nutrition, but we’re not quite there yet,” Accolla said.
Ripe is touting the service to existing clients. Accolla said there has been quite a lot of industry excitement about the partnership, especially among those who are more consumer facing, such as grocery stores, restaurants and meal kits. While blockchain and taste analysis are both individually popular, Ripe and FlavorWiki are the first to blend them.
“We are all extremely excited to be bringing these two worlds together,” Accolla said.
How Olam is adapting to big trends in the ingredients industry
The global spice company launched two new programs in 2018 to expand digital accessibility and help its customers meet their sustainability targets.
By: Lillianna Byington
Olam is helping its customers adapt to two big trends in the ingredients industry today: e-commerce and sustainability, a top executive told Food Dive.
Olam, a supplier of food and raw materials to customers around the world, launched two new programs in 2018 to expand its digital footprint and help its customers meet their environmental targets. AtSource is its new program to increase the traceability of its spices by showing the full supply chain from the seed to the customer. Olam also debuted an online platform to make new transactions easier for the company and its customers.
Greg Estep, managing director and CEO of Olam Spices, told Food Dive that the AtSource program provides customers with information they want to know about their products. This includes how it was grown and information about the soil, water usage, fertilizer and chemicals.
"We map the greenhouse gas emissions all the way from field to the customer's door," he said. "So, it's a way for us to really look at and give an even deeper dive into full transparency and traceability of the supply chain."
The company's digital dashboard provides access to data from field to factory, which connects its customers with the source of the supply chain throughout each step of production. Estep said that helps his customers reach sustainability goals by measuring and improving green practices.
"Many customers are making their own commitments around sustainability, so this will give them data unique to them... Those are things that customers can make claims on for their products," he said. "The other part is just that people want to know where the products come from, so the system also provides the fullest amount of transparency in the supply chain."
This new program addresses growing demands in the industry as sustainability and traceability have become top priorities for consumers. For food brands, reporting on sustainability goals around their practices is no longer an option. Nearly half of U.S. consumers are likely to change their purchasing behavior based on the environmental attributes of the food, according to survey data from Nielsen.
"We map the greenhouse gas emissions all the way from field to the customer's door. So, it's a way for us to really look at and give an even deeper dive into full transparency and traceability of the supply chain."
CEO and Managing Director, Olam Spices
The company also launched its new e-commerce platform to reach out to newcustomers and showcase the products it is launching, such as organic, non-GMO and free-from ingredients, Estep said.
"The industry really hasn't adapted too much to technology and in just the ways to transact more efficiently with customers," he said. "We thought that getting out ahead of it, it was a good way for us to be more efficient in our day-to-day transactions."
Food brands and suppliers are increasingly turning to e-commerce as shopping shifts online. When the company was looking for a way to target new customers, digital outreach was its way to reach out and showcase new products.
But Olam isn't just focusing on e-commerce and sustainability. The company continues to adapt as it developsnew ingredients and spices based on the latest trends in the industry, Estep noted. He said the company looks to products that meet demand for ethnic flavors, different flavor profiles of spices as well as new developments within health and wellness.
Olam has operations in the U.S., primarily in California and New Mexico, as well as across the globe, including in Vietnam, China, India and Egypt. Estep said having operations in different parts of the world help the company to adapt to trends and develop authentic flavored spices, such as chili powders and masala flavors.
"How do we look at our products in a way that meets those trends? Sometimes it's launching a new product or it's just giving more visibility to existing products to meet those demands," he said.
Article top image credit: Olam
It's not easy being green: Romaine lettuce E. coli outbreak rattles food, grocery industries
The FDA's decision to request that the popular green gets pulled from shelves sent "a strong message" to the produce sector while costing supermarkets millions of dollars.
By: Christopher Doering
When Scott Gottlieb asked retailers, restaurants and other commercial outlets to voluntarily pull from the market and destroy any romaine lettuce just two days before Thanksgiving in 2018, it marked an usual and poignant request from the former head of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
"The quick and aggressive steps we’re taking today are aimed at making sure we get ahead of this emerging outbreak, to reduce risk to consumers, and to help people protect themselves and their families from this foodborne illness outbreak," Gottlieb said in a statement last year. "This isn’t the first romaine outbreak we have seen in the recent past, and we will continue to take steps to identify the root causes of these events and take action to prevent future outbreaks."
Last year, romainefrom Arizona sickened 210 people from 36 states, hospitalized 96 and was tied to five deaths. Contaminated water located near a cattle lot was most likely the source. Another hit the U.S. and Canada in 2017, and while investigators in the United States never identified which vegetable was responsible, Canadian officials said romaine was most often tied to illnesses.
"It's very effective, but talk about taking a sledgehammer to crack a walnut. It's a big deal and that's why I think there is a bit more to this in terms of the political regulatory requirement, in that (these three outbreaks are) not acceptable."
FDA's former food safety czar
David Acheson, the FDA's former food safety czar who now runs his own firm to help clients reduce the risk of an outbreak, said the agency's withdraw request — the first in produce since spinach in 2006 — was as much about protecting public health as it was "sending a strong message to the produce industry that they need to look at ways to make this better than it already is."
"It's very effective, but talk about taking a sledgehammer to crack a walnut," Acheson told Food Dive. "It's a big deal and that's why I think there is a bit more to this in terms of the political regulatory requirement, in that (these three outbreaks are) not acceptable."
Last year, the FDA participated in discussions with major producers and distributors of romaine lettuce, as well as trade groups representing the produce industry in an attempt to reduce the impact of future outbreaks.
Gottlieb said in 2018that major growers agreed to voluntarily label romaine with the growing region and the date of harvest to help with market recalls and traceability. The new labeling could be expanded to other leafy greens and produce going forward, he added.
United Fresh, whose members represent the entire produce industry supply chain, said in a statement the deal was negotiated by "a number of romaine grower-shipper-processors" who agreed to take part. Fresh Express, Taylor Farms, Dole Fresh Vegetables and Earthbound Farm are among the companies who said they would adopt the new labels.
Deverl Maserang, president and CEO of Earthbound Farm, said in an email in 2018 to Food Dive that while none of the company's products were connected to the outbreak last year that sickened more than 200 people, the government's "broad advisory to avoid romaine is very disruptive."
He was hopeful then that the growing region and harvested data could assist investigators in narrowing the scope of any potential future advisories, and that the government would be more specific on what kind of product could be excluded, such as conventional versus organic or exempting baby romaine — which is grown and harvested differently than hearts and heads of romaine tied to the recent outbreak, and on different farms.
Romaine consumption getting sliced and diced
Consumption of fresh lettuce, as part of a broader consumer push to eat healthier and better-for-you foods, has been gradually trending upward. It averaged around 11.5 pounds to 12 pounds per person annually since about 2006, before spiking to 12.7 pounds and 12.5 pounds in 2016 and 2017, respectively, according to Statista.
But the outbreaks pummeled romaine lettuce sales in 2018, according to data from Nielsen. Sales of the vegetable, typically the most widely consumed salad green, slumped 13% during the year ending November 24, 2018 to $631 million, the analytics firm estimated. With less romaine lettuce available, USDA said prices of other lettuce varieties have surged, including Boston and iceberg lettuce — which saw a nearly 170% jump.
The removal of romaine lettuce last year was particularly damaging to the grocery industry because of the timing just before Thanksgiving, the large quantity of the product pulled and the expense to stores —including labor costs, lost sales and time spent dealing with the crisis, according to Hilary Thesmar, senior vice president of food safety for the Food Marketing Institute.
"Every single retailer we've talked to, the losses are in the millions," Thesmar told Food Dive. "The economicimpact is huge."
"Every single retailer we've talked to, the losses are in the millions. The economic impact is huge."
Senior vice president of food safety, Food Marketing Institute
Thesmar said while the group and its 33,000 retail store members supported the removal of romaine lettuce in the interest of public health, the decision by federal regulators to request the voluntary removal of the item created uncertainty, such as what happens to the product next or how stores work with their suppliers — questions that are clearer during a recall.
In addition, she said, grocers were faced with the decision of what to do with products in inventory and whether they should discard them or hold them in the hopes that the FDA and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would quickly narrow the scope of the outbreak so they could sell products that weren't affected. (Most complied with the government's request and proactively tossed it.) FMI also faced inquiries from retailers over what to do with romaine supplied from local greenhouses or grown using hydroponics; both were included in the initial advisory.
The report, released in December 2017, found that in 2013, produce accounted for 59% of listeria cases, 51% of E. coli O157 cases, 46% of salmonella cases, and 33% of campylobacter cases. A prominent source of the outbreaks for E. coli came from vegetable row crops, including leafy greens — more than any other food category, IFSAC found.
The Food Safety Modernization Act, signed into law in 2011, called for growers to test their irrigation water and take steps to prevent contaminated sources from being used on produce. But the FDA announced in September 2017 that implementation would be delayed until at least 2022, beginning with the largest farms, in order to allow the agency to “consider how we might further reduce the regulatory burden or increase flexibility.”
Food safety groups have pointed to the recent outbreaks as an impetus to fully implement the 2011 reforms rather than further reducing or delaying the regulatory requirements.
Scott Faber, vice president of governmental affairs at the Environmental Working Group, was hopeful that following the outbreak that led to the recall in 2018 before Thanksgiving, FDA's Gottlieb would accelerate the implementation timeline for the water testing requirements or Congress would require more stringent testing by big growers — potentially as part of the upcoming spending bill on Capitol Hill.
"That's the tragedy of this. It was almost certain that in the absence of testing the irrigation water that people would get sick," Faber told Food Dive. "We've taken no steps to address the risk. It's not rocket science, it's food science."
'We have to do better'
The produce industries in California and Arizona, where 95% of all lettuce is grown, have their own nearly identical food safety frameworks. Each state formed its own Leafy Green Marketing Agreement following a 2006 spinach outbreak that infected 200 people and cost growers millions of dollars. Earthbound Farm has a test-and-hold program where it checks all greens for pathogens when they are received and before they are shipped.
"We have to do everything in our power to keep pathogens, which exist in the environment, out of the food supply," Maserang said.
Today, leafy green growers and shippers who are members of the LGMA must have a traceback program showing where every product came from and where it went.They also are audited on average five times each year to make sure they are complying with all required food safety practices, including monthly water testing.
Scott Horsfall, CEO of the California Leafy Green Marketing Association, told Food Dive the water testing requirements in the Food Safety Modernization Act would test for contaminants using the same methodology and microbial standards as the LGMA standards, but conduct the tests less frequently. As a result, they likely wouldn't have made any difference in preventing the outbreaks in 2018. Still, he acknowledged that "there clearly is something there that we have to do better."
"That's the tragedy of this. It was almost certain that in the absence of testing the irrigation water that people would get sick. We've taken no steps to address the risk. It's not rocket science, it's food science."
Vice president of governmental affairs, Environmental Working Group
As FDA investigators and researchers looked to uncover the cause of the Thanksgiving outbreak in 2018, and determine whether there was something about the romaine plant or the way it grew that made it more susceptible to contamination, Horsfall remained hopeful at the time that the industry would learn more about what happened — and whether there were any changes producers could make to their operations to avoid a future outbreak.
"Obviously, it hurts the reputation, the trust in the industry when you have episodes like this," Horsfall said. "I'm confident we'll rebound. It may take some time, but we'll get there."
Acheson said the food supply chain and the process used by regulators to investigate an outbreak, while generally effective on their own, are not properly linked. This creates problems and inefficiencies that can make it difficult for a foodborne illness outbreak to be stopped or minimized before itgets worse.
He cited the lack of communication between local and state officials and delays on involving CDC that can hinder the ability to quickly link outbreaks over a wider area.
In addition, he said, regulators should be more open with industry when they discover a possible lead during an investigation. This way, growers and shippers can check when and where the batch of lettuce in question was shipped. And growers, processors, distributors, retailers and restaurants generally are hesitant to spend more money beyond what they are required if it doesn't generate an immediate payoff, Acheson noted, even if doing so may prevent a bigger problem like the recent voluntary lettuce withdrawal.
Acheson said while a practice like testing water for contaminants is effective, it's going to take more from everyone with a stake in produce to reduce the likelihood of another outbreak.
"We will never get a leafy green that we can guarantee is 100% free of pathogens 100% of the time," Acheson said. "It will never happen because of the nature of the product, so we need to put in control systems that are as good as we can afford ... and to continue to push the likelihood down."
Article top image credit: Flickr
Has SmartLabel measured up to its potential in its first 3 years?
More than 36,000 products utilized the Grocery Manufacturers Association's transparency system at the end of 2018.
By: Cathy Siegner
Celebrating its three-year anniversary in December 2018, SmartLabel seemed to have made significant progress on the number of participating brands and products about which it provides information. There were only about 2,000 participating products accessible on the SmartLabel system in 2016. In 2017, it was about 14,000. There were more than 36,000 at the end of 2018, according to the Grocery Manufacturers Association.
"I’m proud to say we’ve come a long way in three years, with the majority of the average store’s products available on SmartLabel," Geoff Freeman, GMA's president and CEO, said in a release. "The industry proactively created this product and continues to demonstrate its commitment to transparency with the program's rapid ascent."
That growth was no doubt due to a marketing outreach campaign GMA and the Food Marketing Institute launched in 2018 on video and social media, along with coverage on TV, radio and in print. GMA said then that a comprehensive consumer campaign had been waiting for a large number of products to be carrying the labels. And since about 40,000 to 50,000 products in an average grocery store were said to be including them, 2018 seemed to be the right time.
One criticism of the digital tool was that few people seemed to know it existed or how to access and use it. Following the outreach campaign and the growing number of participating products, that particular obstacle should largely be overcome.
Shoppers who do use smartphones, computers or tablets to access the SmartLabel system are in a position to learn a lot about a participating food or beverage item. There are hundreds of different product attributes that can be incorporated into the system — including ingredients, allergen information, health claims, sustainability practices, how animals are treated and usage instructions.
While educational outreach appears to have done a good job of increasing participation, retailers and manufacturers are also in a position to augment its use. Stores can install Wi-Fi, post signs, do demos and highlight the system in online and mobile ads. Shelf tags could draw attention to the QR codes and refer shoppers to the SmartLabel site, where FAQs are posted to help with any questions.
Food and beverage makers can take their own steps to maximize use of the SmartLabel tool on their products, including making the QR codes on packaging larger and more visible so shoppers take greater advantage of them. Mondelez created its own free app in 2017 to provide access to ingredient, nutrition, allergy and other information on its biscuits, crackers, cookies, chocolates, gum and candy.
The Coca-Cola Co. was an early adopter of the system, with a goal of having QR codes on all beverage packaging by the first quarter of 2018. Those seem like solid moves for brands looking to enhance their transparency credentials and get a leg up on the competition.
Research shows more consumer information tends to influence buying decisions. GMA noted an online survey done by Atomik Research in May 2018 that found 75% of 1,002 shoppers said they would change their buying habits if they were given more environmental impact, safety and usage information about the products they were purchasing. And 71% said they wanted more information about a product beyond the label ingredients, such as what role the ingredients play in the product or why they're there. Such attitudes would seem to bolster SmartLabel's future as it adds more participating products to the roster.