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E. Coli Is Making Headlines Again: Can Blockchain Help?

Blockchain technology offers an effective, relatively inexpensive and mutually beneficial solution that can act as a win-win for both regulators and food industry operators.

As of late April, 98 people across 22 states have been infected with the foodborne illness E. Coli. Roughly half of the individuals affected by this outbreak have been hospitalized and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) expects this number to continue to climb. While experts at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and CDC have confirmed that the outbreak is most likely caused by contaminated romaine lettuce grown in the Yuma region of Arizona, the exact point of convergence for when, where, and how this romaine became corrupted remains unclear.

Even the current information on this outbreak was acquired somewhat through happenstance. The only reason the CDC was able to trace the outbreak as far as they have is due to a high concentration of infections that occurred in a correctional facility in Nome, Alaska. Eight inmates appeared to come down with the same E. Coli symptoms over a short period of time within this highly regulated and controlled environment.

This offered a bit of bittersweet luck for the CDC and FDA, enabling them to identify the original source of all food shipped to that particular facility within the given timeframe. Normally, the process of finding "patient zero" and the original source of the contamination is a much more laborious and complicated endeavor. And despite this discovery, the search for the ultimate point of contamination convergence is still well underway.

Initial Source of Outbreak Still Only Partially Identified

Through a series of lab tests and examinations, experts determined the exact strain of this particularly harmful E. Coli to be 0157:H7. They followed the supply-chain from the correctional facility to Harrison Farms in Yuma, AZ, where they found the same strain in contaminated shipments of whole heads of romaine lettuce. While this initial tracing lent some serious insight into the source of the outbreak, researchers are still uncertain exactly how the same 0157:H7 strain of E. Coli has found its way across 22 states throughout the country. They're also not able to identify the precise cause of the contamination, or point of convergence, in the first place.

So what's to be done? So far, the only viable course of action is to avoid romaine altogether. Obviously that means an enormous amount of this food will be thrown out and farmers of the crop will inevitably suffer curtailed profits this season. This is an entirely avoidable situation that highlights larger issues of tracking our foods from source to consumer. Unfortunately, these tactics are very commonplace within the realm of American agriculture.

Remember Chipotle?

The Chipotle brand has had an extremely rough few years. This is in spite of its ever-loyal consumer base and its continued attempts to resurface as a cleaner, healthier version of its past self. Back in 2015/2016, Chipotle's E. Coli fiasco caused over 50 reported infections across 11 states. Stock in the Chipotle corporation subsequently fell nearly 20% from its 52-week high at the time.

Researchers at the CDC determined that the most likely source of this outbreak was contaminated produce. However, Chipotle still maintains a theory that its newly sourced Australian beef was the real culprit. Essentially, the exact cause of the Chipotle E. Coli situation was never officially identified. Whether the Chipotle corporation wanted it to remain a mystery is still up in the air, but regardless, the American public and the Chipotle stockholders will never know what caused this sickening series of events.

This particular contamination instance involved corporate interests butting heads with regulatory inspection. In a perfect world, both entities would be better off operating in a completely transparent network where they can pinpoint single points of failure with ease. In a transparent supply-chain system, not only is the consumer protected, but the corporate and regulatory interests also maintain superior functionality and end up spending less time and money hoping to fix problems and save face.

Assuming Chipotle wanted to find the exact source of the E. Coli, the cards were entirely stacked against them. Rather than being able to locate a specific point of contact between the foodborne illness and Chipotle's products, the corporation had to instead institute a complete and undoubtedly expensive overhaul of all of its sourcing, distribution, preparation, and management processes. If only they had the technology to precisely track their food sources down to exact shipments, they could have saved themselves a massive amount of trouble. If only they had considered using blockchain.

Reluctance to Adopt Trackability Systems

In America, farmers and manufacturers are reluctant to adopt new and sometimes expensive tracking technology unless otherwise pressured by the federal government and other regulatory agencies. Even after the Food Safety Modernization Act was signed in 2011, the FDA and CDC are still having a tremendously hard time determining the exact sourcing methods for all food related products currently being sold to unsuspecting Americans. This is primarily caused by ineffective technical solutions that turn out to be more wasteful than nurturing or preventative.

When we think about sourcing a full head of lettuce, it might appear to be a fairly simple process. If we know where distributors purchased the lettuce, then we can identify the grower, as was the case with the Yuma-based Harrison Farms. Things get much trickier when we start to consider packaged goods or bundled produce packages.

For example, a plastic container or bag of mixed lettuce (one of the most frequently purchased items at nearly all grocery chains) could contain varieties of lettuce from all over the country without having to label each source on the container. Despite having only three varieties, a typical blend of romaine, spring lettuce, and spinach might actually be sourced from six or more distinct farms across the U.S. And this problem is obviously not relegated to lettuce or leafy greens. It's a prevalent issue in practically all foods that Americans regularly consume.

Using Blockchain to Identify Sources Fast and Efficiently

One of the main reasons tracking food sources is currently such a headache involves hesitant growers and producers that are frequently positioned against regulatory agencies such as the FDA and CDC. Growers, producers, and all grocery supply-chain participants don't want to adopt expensive, government-initiated means for tracking and auditing their supply-chains. Fortunately, blockchain technology offers an effective, relatively inexpensive, and mutually beneficial solution that can act as a win-win for both regulators and food industry operators.

A management platform functioning with a decentralized blockchain ledger allows for all organic materials and the products they are subsequently manufactured with to be tracked and monitored throughout the entire supply chain, even to the point of consumption at a grocery store or restaurant. Every node within a supply-chain, whether its the grower, distributor, manufacturer, grocer, or consumer, would have their interactions with these products and each other registered on the blockchain ledger as well. This essentially creates an immutable chronology of the entire life cycle of all food, from farm to table. This means no loose ends, no ambiguous interactions or exchanges, and easily identifiable points of convergence in cases of emergency.

If blockchain technology had been put in place for the management of the romaine and Chipotle food supply-chains, the exact source and cause of these E. Coli contaminations could have been uncovered within a day or two. All points of contact with the produce would have been recorded and could be easily audited within a software management system. As soon as an infected person was discovered, they could trace all foods that he/she consumed back to the source, with complete transparency into every thing that happened to those foods along their supply chain.

The beautiful thing about the blockchain solution is that it would allow growers, producers, manufacturers, distributors, grocers and consumers as well as regulatory agencies to benefit equally from operating within a totally trackable and entirely transparent system. In a blockchain integrated supply-chain, costs can be cut from all sides, transactions can be completed quickly and efficiently, and the status of all goods can be registered and tracked from source to ultimate consumption.

Unfortunately, the CDC and FDA are still struggling to identify the official point of convergence for the current E. Coli outbreak. While their efforts have helped to shed light on a particularly sickening situation, the end to their investigation is nowhere in sight. And the numbers of infected individuals continues to rise.

Maybe it’s time for the food industry to start seriously considering a more sophisticated and innovative solution to its tracking and sourcing issues? As hundreds of new blockchain startups begin to promise such a solution, there is seemingly no excuse for growers and regulators alike to adopt this 21st century approach.

Rudy Brathwaite is Co-Founder and CIO of SupplyBloc

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