Romaine Lettuce, E-Coli and the Path to Blockchain

Recent foodborne illness outbreaks underscore the need for traceability and help bolster the case for the use of blockchain technology

Reports of Romaine Lettuce Contamination Crop Up in 19 States

Food safety and food safety education for consumers are essential ingredients in the recipe for healthy American consumers.  Across the United States, from farms to dinner tables, Americans are concerned about food product contamination, including that of the recent outbreak related to romaine lettuce grown in Yuma Arizona.

Preventing foodborne illness and safeguarding the public health requires getting accurate information to consumers quickly to enable the disposal of unsafe foods.

As of this today, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are 84 cases that can be attributed to the ecoli outbreak tied to romaine lettuce.  The foodborne outbreaks have occurred across 19 states.  Of the 42 people who had to be hospitalized, nine have developed a type of kidney failure known as hemolytic uremic syndrome.  The FDA, CDC and state public health and regulatory officials have been investigating a multi-state outbreak of Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli O157:H7, (E. coli O157:H7) infections.

Aleady in 2018, there have been multi-state foodborne outbreak investigations of shell eggs, romaine lettuce, dried coconut, chicken salad, kratom, raw sprouts and frozen shredded coconut.  Working in partnership for food safety, investigators work to determine which products are involved and contain the outbreak of foodborne illness.  When foodborne illness occurs, public health officials on the local and state level in addition to the CDC and federal regulatory agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) investigate them.  Great effort is made to uncover the cause of the illness and prevent further occurrence.

Yearly Comparison between Undeclared Allergens

The effort to uncover causation, track and trace of food products across the food supply chain and verification takes time and while it occurs, other consumers are put at risk.   In the recent incident involving romaine lettuce, valuable information was obtained early that helped to identify the culprit.  One of the earliest segments of affected consumers included 8 prisoners occupying the Anvil Mountain Correctional Center in Nome Alaska.  This small closed population helped researchers to identify that whole head and chopped romaine lettuce from Yuma Arizona was the source of the outbreak.  Because prisoners have limited access to food and were all in the same location, it was easier to determine exposure to the contaminated food product.

Tracing Food Products During Foodborne Illness Outbreaks

How do researchers “connect the dots” when investigating incidents involving foodborne illness?  Interviews and victim reports provide vital clues and useful information for investigators to follow.  Ironically, in most instances, that is relatively easy compared to tracking down the specific produce growers, processors, packers and distributors that handled the product.

This is partially because not all produce sold to consumers has labeling codes.  Produce does not always include barcode labeled packaging when sold to consumers, retailers or restaurants and foodservice businesses.  The lack of traceability codes on produce packaging prevents the ability to have access to tracking information.  Not all businesses across supply chain logistics networks have accurate, complete documentation of shipping and receiving records and other documentation.  This further slows down the traceability process.

FDA Regulations Involving Food Traceability

The primary food safety authority, the Food and Drug Administration posts updates on outbreaks of foodborne illness as well as information on recalls and alerts on its website in order to safeguard the public health and aid in disease prevention efforts.  The two primary FDA regulations which involve the traceability of food products are the Bioterrorism Act of 2002 (also known as the Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act of 2002) and the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2011 (FSMA).  The FDA Bioterrorism Act of 2002 mandates the “one step forward, one step back” traceability requirement.  In other words, every facility along the supply chain network must show where a food product is going as well as where it had been before reaching that respective facility.

To help protect food security, the Food Safety and Modernization Act expands and provides support for the Bioterrorism Act of 2002.  The regulation mandates that facilities establish and execute a food safety system including preventative controls and a food product recall plan.  FSMA represents a fundamental shift in policy from responding to food illness to preventing it.  FSMA mandates that the FDA establish systems that enhance the capability of effectively tracking and tracing food.

As part of the FSMA regulation, the Food and Drug Administration must issue regulations regarding improved recordkeeping for items it has determined and notifies the public are “high risk foods”.

The system is required to be technologically neutral and science-based.  The burdens of the additional requirements of the recordkeeping system must be outweighed by the benefits.  FSMA does not require tracking of the complete pedigree of information and does not require food product tracing to the case level.  Grocery retailers which purchase directly from farms are not required to follow the same recordkeeping requirements for those food products but must retain records documenting the source of the food for 180 days.

Blockchain Enables Food Product Traceability Across Supply Chain Networks

First it was Bitcoin.  Now blockchain has been proven effective in tracing pork shipments in China and fresh mango in the United States.  A proof-of-concept project with IBM and Walmart has captured the attention of grocers, food retailers, suppliers and others across the supply chain industry.  Following the success of that first project, IBM, Walmart, Kroger and Wegmans collaborated with supply chain services provider McLane Co. and notable industry food product suppliers including Dole, Driscoll’s, Golden State Farms, McCormick and Co., Nestle, Tyson Foods and Unilever on a blockchain traceability solution for enterprises, the IBM Food Trust.

The project connects supply chain logistics industry key players including growers, processors, distributors, suppliers, retailers and regulators.  Each has a shared view of the transaction history of food products as they traverse complex supply chains.  In establishing the effectiveness of blockchain as a “trusted system of record”, the technology can be shown to be verifiable, reliable and a critical component for saving time, money and lives.  No longer will U.S. consumers, retailers and other supply chain businesses need to dispose of tainted goods only suspected of being involved in foodborne illness outbreaks, an estimated $161 billion loss.  Using blockchain technology, more precise, timely notifications can be provided to the public so that only the affected foods will need disposal, potentially eliminating billions of pounds of food waste annually.

Blockchain can provide traceability of food products in seconds rather than days.  A Walmart-IBM blockchain traceability test involving mangoes in the U.S. made this point evident. 

Walmart used its traditional method of traceability to trace mangoes back to their original source. This took 6 days, 18 hours and 26 minutes. Blockchain was able to do this in only 2.2 seconds and provided additional information that had previously been unavailable to Walmart. Blockchain can be layered on top of existing supply chain technology systems using EDI or ASN data feeds to populate the path as products are added.



The recent foodborne illness involving romaine lettuce showcases the challenges that retailers, consumers and food businesses have in locating and distributing information about products involved in outbreaks.  FDA regulations involving traceability are now mandated to help improve food safety for consumers.  Trials involving blockchain technology have proven fruitful and have resulted in a new blockchain product for enterprises, the IBM Food Trust.

Blockchain enables fast, accurate, detailed information about food product traceability.  This has been demonstrated to save retailers and others across the supply chain time and money and helps to improve the health and safety of consumers.

The food industry plays a critical role in food defense, making sure that consumers are made aware of risks from unsafe foods and health information as well as food recalls via news releases and the media.  Having quick, accurate information regarding foodborne pathogens is essential in preventing foodborne illness.  Relying on updates from the Food and Drug Administration, Food Safety News and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention helps consumers safeguard their health and get rid of contaminated food from food supplies.

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