As outbreaks of bacterial contamination in produce keep popping up, public confidence is being tested — and so is the effectiveness of traceability, the system designed to quickly recall tainted food from the supply chain.
In recent outbreaks involving recalls of cantaloupes, onions and lettuce, suppliers with traceability in place were able to quickly and precisely identify questionable product and remove it. For suppliers without traceability, the process was lengthy and costly, resulting in the recall of entire crops and increased threat to public health.
“Where traceability is in place, it can be a very effective tool in food safety. It can help limit the scope of recalls and help make them more surgical,” said Robert Whitaker, chief science and technology officer for the Produce Marketing Association.
When traceability is working, growers, packers, shippers and grocery stores can look at a label and quickly identify the product’s source and every place it has been on the distribution chain. Traceability may even have an application at the end of the supply chain, such as retail stores and restaurants, which now rely on suppliers to detect contaminated food.
The Produce Traceability Initiative (PTI) is a voluntary program that standardizes track-and- trace procedures from farm to store or restaurant. Its backers say the recent outbreaks illustrate the difference between having PTI in place and having little or no traceability capability.
In August, Tanimura and Antle was able to voluntarily recall a single lot of romaine lettuce that may have been contaminated with E. coli. According to a company press release, “Retailers and distributors can identify the affected products through a traceability code label affixed to exterior of the case.”
In July, Gills Onions recalled whole peeled and cut onions and onion/celery mixes after internal testing detected the possibility of listeria contamination. Gills also has a traceability system in place and could identify and recall all product with specific lot numbers. As of August, no illnesses had been reported from the Gills or Tanimura and Antle cases.
“Gills Onions was able to determine exactly who shipped, when and where and do it instantly,” said Ed Treacy, PMA vice president for supply chain efficiencies and a technical consultant to PTI. “They were able to minimize the impact and notify people very quickly.”
Recent cantaloupe outbreaks
The cantaloupe cases involve Burch Equipment LLC of North Carolina and Chamberlain Farms of Indiana. Neither farm appeared to have had a robust traceability program in place, said Whitaker.
Due to possible listeria contamination, Burch had to recall the entire season’s crop of cantaloupes and honeydew melons. According to the FDA, one source of confusion was that a PLU sticker of another grower had been placed on some of the cantaloupes. However, the other grower did not grow or process any of the cantaloupes in question.
The most serious case involves a salmonella outbreak from cantaloupe grown at Chamberlain Farms that sickened at least 178 people in 21 states and was linked to two fatalities. Chamberlain ceased production and recalled its entire crop. The FDA said the cantaloupes in question were marketed between June 21 and Aug. 16.
“If you have a good traceability system, you can be very precise and very clear in your communication,” Whitaker said. “But if don’t have good control over each lot, it causes confusion in these kinds of situations. In the middle of crisis, it is very difficult to go back and do all this. “You have to be prepared before the crisis.”
On the front lines
“It would help me in what I do and how I educate people. It would help restaurants be more proactive. If I had a question about a product, I could go right to the source and not rely on going through the supplier,” said Keith.
Restaurants have reason to be proactive because diners are aware of the existence of food safety crises and ask questions about the source of what’s on their plates.
“Most of the clients I work with are local and don’t have that kind of power or ability,” said Keith. “They are relying on the supplier. They contact the supplier and ask whether the recall affects them. The relationship with the supplier is extremely important. There has to be a lot of trust there.”