How We Can Reduce Food-Borne Illnesses

A serious E. coli outbreak linked to daycare centers is reported in Calgary, Canada.  This is a developing story and the full magnitude of the health impact is still not known.  First reported on September 5th, 2023 that at least 50 children had experienced symptoms, by September 8th the reported patient count had risen to 128, by September 11th to over 225 and by September 14th to over 300.

The outbreak seemed initially limited to 11 daycare centers that share a single kitchen.  Investigators are testing leftovers and frozen food from that kitchen to try to identify the specific source and cause of the outbreak.  Troublingly, new cases have started to appear at facilities beyond the initial eleven.

Health and Productivity Impact of Contamination

While most E. coli strains are harmless, E. coli O157:H7 (the offending strain in this outbreak) can cause a severe intestinal infection in humans.  E. coli outbreaks are often associated with leafy greens like lettuce and spinach, partially because of the way they’re grown in soil that’s prone to contamination.  Most people in the United States also eat these vegetables raw, which increases the risk of getting E. coli.

While many E. coli O157:H7 patients may suffer fever, cramps and diarrhea, there is the possibility of permanent injuries and death.  Children, seniors, and those already sick are particularly vulnerable as their immune systems are immature, deteriorating, or compromised.

All are at risk of Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome (HUS), a serious disease that affects the kidneys and blood-clotting functions of infected people.  According the Mayo Clinic:

“Hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) is a condition that can occur when small blood vessels become damaged and inflamed. This damage can cause clots to form in the vessels all through the body. The clots can damage the kidneys and other organs. Hemolytic uremic syndrome can lead to kidney failure, which can be life-threatening.”
Food-borne illnesses in aggregate have a serious impact on overall population health.  According to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA):

“Foodborne illness, also called food poisoning, is a serious national public health problem. Each year it causes an estimated 48 million people to get sick, 128,000 to be hospitalized, and 3,000 to die.”

And this health impact translates into a significant productivity impact of food-borne illness.  According to the US National Institute of Health (NIH):

“In the United States the cost of annual foodborne illnesses that affect some 48 million Americans was put at approximately $US78 billion taking into account such factors as cost of health care and loss of productivity; a cost of over $US1600 per person each year.”

Where Did the Contamination Occur

For investigators in this Calgary outbreak, the critical question is: Where in the food supply chain did the contamination arise? In this particular outbreak, as all of the impacted facilities shared the same kitchen, it may be that food was improperly stored or prepared in that kitchen.  

But it may also be that one or more ingredients sourced by that kitchen were contaminated.  And if that is the case, the contamination may have occurred anywhere in the ingredient supply chain from farm source, through processing centers, pack houses, storage facilities and transportation operations.  Inadequate washing, unhygienic handling, and improper environmental controls (e.g., atmosphere, temperature, humidity) can all be contributory causes.

How Whole Chain Traceability Can Help

Whole-chain food traceability refers to the ability to track any food item from its origin (farm, fishery, etc.) through all stages of production, processing, and distribution, until it reaches the consumer. Implementing this comprehensive form of traceability can significantly reduce contamination and improve food safety in multiple ways:

  1. Rapid Response to Contamination Issues: If a foodborne illness outbreak occurs, authorities can quickly identify the source of the problem and intervene to prevent further spread. This rapid response limits the scope of an outbreak and reduces the number of people affected.
  2. Targeted Recalls: When contamination is detected, a detailed traceability system allows for specific, targeted recalls. Instead of recalling all products of a particular type, only the affected batches or lots are recalled, which reduces economic losses and consumer panic.
  3. Transparency and Accountability: Producers and processors know they are directly accountable for their products. This fosters a sense of responsibility and encourages higher safety standards throughout the food chain.
  4. Consumer Confidence: With accessible traceability information, consumers can have greater confidence in the safety of their food. This can influence purchasing decisions, as consumers might prefer products with clear traceability records.
  5. Reduce Cross-contamination: If each step of the supply chain is monitored and documented, there’s less chance of cross-contamination between safe and unsafe products. This is especially crucial in facilities that process multiple food items.
  6. Improve Best Practices: Whole-chain traceability can help identify weak points or common sources of contamination in the supply chain, enabling industry and regulators to develop better safety practices and standards.
  7. Enhanced Record-Keeping: A robust traceability system necessitates good record-keeping. This not only aids in tracing products but also in identifying patterns or recurring issues in the food production process.
  8. Supply Chain Optimization: In addition to enhancing safety, traceability systems can help businesses identify inefficiencies or bottlenecks in their supply chains. These insights can lead to operational improvements.
  9. Global Trade and Compliance: As global food trade continues to expand, different countries and regions have varying safety standards and regulations. A comprehensive traceability system can ensure compliance with international standards, facilitating smoother trade and ensuring food safety.
  10. Informed Decision Making: When contamination does occur, traceability systems provide invaluable data that can guide decisions, from the farm level to the retail shelf.
  11. Technology Integration: Modern traceability often employs technologies like blockchain, QR codes, and IoT devices. These technologies not only make tracking more efficient but also contribute to real-time monitoring and advanced analytics, further enhancing safety.

Implementing whole-chain food traceability requires investment in technologies and processes, collaboration among all stakeholders, and sometimes a shift in business practices. However, the benefits in terms of ensuring food safety, reducing economic losses from widespread recalls, and building consumer trust are significant.

What a Traceability Solution Should Look Like

A comprehensive food traceability solution ensures the transparency and accountability of the food supply chain from farm to table. An effective system should be capable of rapidly identifying and addressing any issues or concerns related to food safety, quality, and authenticity. Below is an elaboration on the requirements of such a solution:

  1. Immediacy:
    • Rapid Response: In the event of a food safety issue, the system should immediately pinpoint the affected products and their origin, reducing the time needed for recalls and minimizing the impact on public health and business reputation.
    • Real-time Data: Access to real-time data ensures that stakeholders can view current information about product status, location, and other relevant metrics, which is particularly important during transit or if conditions change.
  2. Rich Data:
    • Diverse Data Points: A traceability system should capture a broad spectrum of data, including product type, source, destination, handlers, timestamps, storage conditions (e.g., temperature, humidity), and transportation details.
    • Data Integrity: Ensuring that data is accurate, reliable, and untampered is crucial. This might involve blockchain or other secure databases.
    • Interoperability: Different stakeholders in the food supply chain often use different systems. A comprehensive solution should seamlessly integrate or communicate with these various systems to collect and share data.
  3. Whole Chain:
    • End-to-End Visibility: The solution should provide transparency throughout the entire supply chain, from producers (e.g., farmers) to processors, distributors, retailers, and finally, consumers.
    • Seamless Integration: Stakeholders at every stage should be able to easily integrate their operations with the traceability system, regardless of their scale or technological maturity.
    • Tiered Access: Different stakeholders may require different levels of access to data. For instance, consumers might only need product origin information, while regulators might need in-depth production details.
  4. Mock Event Testing:
    • Simulation Capabilities: Before deploying the solution, it’s essential to simulate potential real-world scenarios (e.g., contamination events, recalls) to test the system’s efficiency and reliability.
    • Feedback Loop: After each mock event test, there should be a mechanism for stakeholders to provide feedback, which can then be used to refine and improve the system.
    • Regular Audits: To ensure the system remains effective and up-to-date, regular mock tests and audits should be scheduled even post-deployment.
  5. Detailed Reporting:
    • Customizable Reports: Stakeholders should be able to generate reports based on their specific needs, be it for internal reviews, regulatory compliance, or consumer transparency.
    • Alert System: The traceability system should be able to automatically detect and alert stakeholders about any anomalies or potential risks in the supply chain.
    • Historical Data Analysis: By accessing and analyzing historical data, stakeholders can identify patterns, make informed decisions, and continuously improve their processes.
    • Transparency for Consumers: In an age where consumers are increasingly conscious about the origin and safety of their food, the system should offer a simplified reporting mechanism (e.g., via QR codes) that allows consumers to access pertinent information about the products they purchase.

In summary, a comprehensive food traceability solution requires a blend of technology, user-friendly interfaces, and rigorous testing to ensure it effectively safeguards the food supply chain. Given the potential implications for public health and business reputations, especially in light of this E.coli outbreak, investing in such a solution is paramount for any organization involved in the food industry.

About dFarm

dFarm’s AI- and Blockchain-powered Distributed ERP/SCM solutions provide comprehensive whole-chain food traceability, enabling our growers, wholesalers and all intermediate services to ensure the quality and safety of the food they are handling.

Real-Time Whole Chain Tracing

Risk is unmanageable without visibility. dFarm’s Precision Trace utilizes dFarm’s deep data collection technologies to provide tracing back to the specific sources at the farm and lot level, and tracing forward to all recipients.