Skip To The Main Content

Blockchain: Preventing E. Coli Through Enhanced Traceability

APICS CEO

Friday May 4, 2018


Blockchain has been touted as the cure-all for everything from financial fraud to voting, but this week Wired magazine’s Maryn McKenna suggested that blockchain could help prevent E. coli. How? Consider that two weeks ago, the earliest signs of an outbreak of the disease surfaced in New Jersey. As of Wednesday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported that 121 people in 25 states have been infected with this particularly dangerous strain of E. coli.

Health officials narrowed the source down to romaine lettuce, but identifying which romaine lettuce from where is still a problem. First, consumers were instructed to avoid prechopped romaine lettuce. Then, after an outbreak at an Alaska prison pointed to whole romaine lettuce heads, the CDC targeted all romaine grown in Yuma, Arizona.

While investigators traced the heads of lettuce from the prison back to a Yuma business called Harrison Farms, “they haven’t been able to reconstruct the path of the chopped lettuce that made people sick from Washington state to Louisiana to Connecticut,” McKenna writes.

That’s because, in the United States, it’s nearly impossible to follow food’s trail from the farm to the table. Food traceability remains a political challenge, with officials seeking to resolve outbreaks quickly and growers and shippers refusing to invest in technology. However, in Japan and the European Union, food traceability is the norm.

Despite laws, such as the U.S. Bioterrorism Act of 2002 (mandating that businesses keep records of the prior handler and the next handler) and the Food Safety and Modernization Act, food is still very hard to trace.

“Trying to find all those records, whether they be digital records or written records or handwritten records, is extremely tough,” said Stic Harris, director of the outbreak response unit at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Further, when there are records, they might not provide the kind of information that makes them useful during an outbreak. For example, a bar code might reveal the date something was packed and where, but it will not show from which farm the item came.

“It’s possible that the answer … might be in blockchain,” McKenna writes. “The distributed, encrypted ledger that supports cryptocurrency such as Bitcoin could also be used to build a record of every transaction that affects a piece of produce, from the person who picked it, to the truck that carried the pallet, to the table where it was dumped at the packing house and the wholesale shipment it joined on its way out the door.” 

IBM, Walmart, Nestle and others have already started piloting the technology. But, Wired warns that commitment will be challenging for small farmers. Still, traceability not only helps identify the exact food at risk of contamination, it also saves food that now gets dumped because it may or may not be contaminated. Currently, stores such as Costco and Kroger are pulling all romaine and prepared salads off their shelves.

“To improve food safety, we need a stronger chain of data,” McKenna writes. “a chain is only as strong as its weakest link.”

Supply chain and the consumer

I heard the news about the E. coli outbreak on my way back from lunch, where I had just enjoyed a Caesar salad, full of untraceable romaine lettuce. I immediately thought that traceability has evolved from a supply chain topic to one of interest to consumers everywhere. Whether it’s what we are putting in our mouths, what we are wearing on our backs or what we are using to do our work each day, consumers now want to know where it came from and if it was ethically sourced. Traceability has become a brand imperative.

Traceability is defined in the APICS Dictionary as “the registering and tracking of parts, processes and materials used in production by lot or serial number.” It’s a simple definition of something that continues to perplex supply chain professionals in many different industries. 

APICS provides a variety of resources that can help you and your company harness the power of emerging technologies, such as blockchain. For example, APICS 2018 features a session by the American Blockchain Council Executive Director Jack Shaw. He’ll help attendees understand the impact of this emerging technology on supply chain. APICS 2018 takes place from September 30–October 2 in Chicago. For more information about APICS 2018, visit apics.org/conference.