Late last month, the CDC issued a warning that batches of romaine lettuce were contaminated with E. coli. Consumers were warned not to buy or consume romaine lettuce, and retailers and distributors were left with the task of disposing of their stock. Initially, the source of the outbreak was unclear and thus all romaine lettuce was disposed of to ensure the safety of consumers. Demand for other leafy greens to fill the shelves have yet to be met, and many grocery stores are still limited in their salad sections.
However, once the source of the outbreak was identified, it became clear that much of the lettuce that was disposed of was unaffected by the outbreak and therefore safe to eat. So what went wrong? Why was so much food and money wasted unnecessarily? The answer is visibility. Supply chains continue to lag behind in visibility, resulting in inaccuracies when tracing where products came from. When we cannot identify where an outbreak begins, we cannot accurately identify which other products are at risk. This means significant waste in terms of money, time, and food products.
This is hardly the first instance of foodborne illnesses resulting in a recall of romaine lettuce. In fact, this is the 3rd outbreak relating to contaminated romaine lettuce in the last 12 months. Each time, the source is identified too late and tonnes of safe lettuce is thrown out.
Identifying ways to improve visibility and accurate tracking in supply chains is a task that many people in a variety of industries are working on. Walmart has begun utilizing blockchain technology to increase the safety of their food products across their supply chains. Other companies are updating reporting and tracking policies to make it easier to know exactly where a product came from. Ultimately, it's unclear what the best answer will be to ensure the safety of our food products, but it is a challenge that is worth our time.