An Urban's Rural View

An Idea Whose Time Has Come

Urban C Lehner
By  Urban C Lehner , Editor Emeritus
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The latest E.Coli attack lost Americans a lot of lettuce and cost lettuce growers a lot of dough.

When people started getting sick after eating Romaine lettuce, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration responded by advising Americans not to eat the green, throw out any they had on hand and disinfect refrigerator compartments in which it resided. The industry was asked to voluntarily recall lettuce; most industry participants complied.

The winners in this incident were the people who might have gotten sick but didn't, plus the companies that make and sell bleach, the cleanser people were advised to use on their refrigerator compartments. The biggest losers were the overwhelming majority of Romaine growers whose lettuce was E.Coli free. It was the government's inability to determine who produced the disease-bearing lettuce that led to the sweeping plea to avoid all Romaine.

Now, apparently, the CDC and FDA have narrowed the source of the bad lettuce to central and Northern California, and have given the all-clear signal to Romaine produced elsewhere. (…) The government has suggested labeling where lettuce was grown and when harvested; much of the industry has agreed to do that.

Food-safety advocates in Congress and consumer groups want more. They complain that key provisions of the 2011 Food Safety Modernization Act aimed at rapid traceback of infected foods aren't being fully enforced.

People have been talking about traceability for years, but most of the traceback mechanisms put into place so far have been half-hearted. The rules in effect today only require businesses to keep records one step forward and one step back -- who they bought from and who they sold to. Different businesses can and do keep those records in different formats, sometimes even handwritten.

The advocacy group Consumer Reports says Congress intended to impose record-keeping requirements that would allow a rapid traceback all the way through the supply chain. (…)

To many farmers, "traceability" is a four-letter word. They see it costing them time and money and inserting the unwelcome nose of the government into their business. Remember how the cattle guys rebelled against the proposed National Animal Identification System?

Ironically, the government had wanted to do cattlemen a favor. The idea was that rapid traceback would limit the number of animals that needed to be put down in an outbreak of a fast-spreading disease, like hoof and mouth. From the reception the proposal got, you'd have thought Big Brother was announcing plans to take over ranches and enslave ranchers. What eventually emerged was not NAIS but a greatly watered-down animal traceability program. (…)

Yet what we learned in the Romaine crisis is that calls for genuine traceability aren't going away. There's continuing pressure for record-keeping regulations allowing the source of contaminated food to be identified in seconds rather than weeks.

Walmart, for example, isn't waiting for tougher rules. The big retailer has told its suppliers of lettuce, spinach and other leafy greens to join a blockchain traceback system developed by IBM. They in turn will have to get their suppliers, all the way back to the farm, to join the blockchain system.

With blockchain, the technology behind Bitcoin, a network of computers jointly manages a chain of transactions, like the passing of goods up a supply chain. "Corporate use of blockchain technology is aimed at governing transactions with many hand-offs while preserving one consistent history," the Wall Street Journal wrote in its report on Walmart's mandate to suppliers. "Blockchain establishes authorship or ownership that experts say can't be faked and eliminates costly middle layers because of its peer-to-peer structure. The encrypted data stays up-to-date on all participants' systems." (…)

Other retailers will undoubtedly join Walmart in requiring lightning-fast traceability. It's also worth noting that the FDA recently hired Walmart's Vice President of food safety, the man behind the retailer's adoption of the blockchain system. (…)

Agricultural producers are no doubt right in thinking that traceability will impose costs. But it will also yield benefits. The benefits for society in limiting the spread of contaminated food are clear. In earlier bouts of E.Coli contaminated Romaine in 2017 and 2018, 7 people died. (…)

There are benefits for ag producers, too. With rapid traceback, the innocent will no longer suffer with the guilty from broad recalls that can't be narrowed because the origin of the contamination is unknown. Like it or not, with big retailers pushing it, serious traceability is increasingly looking like an idea whose time has come.

Urban Lehner can be reached at



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