Food production is complex, and following proper food safety handling techniques is very difficult. Time for a change?
The Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have reported that 98 people in 22 states have become ill from eating romaine lettuce grown in the region of Yuma, Arizona. Forty-six of those individuals have been hospitalized, including 10 who have developed a type of kidney failure. As of May 2018, the CDC has updated their findings to say that one person in California has died and the total number of people sickened has reached 121 in 25 states. The difficulty of discovering just how and when the lettuce was contaminated is due to the fact that, at least in the case of the people sickened at an Alaska correctional facility, the contamination occurred not at the farm where the whole-head lettuce was grown and harvested but elsewhere in the packaging and distribution chain, according to the FDA.
“Farm to table” is a common phrase that is used to describe high quality and fresh foods. Along this path for all foods there are many instances where foods can be contaminated. In the case of this lettuce, it was harvested, put in boxes, shipped to another facility (or multiple ones), stored under refrigeration, washed, chopped, and then packaged in bags that may include plain romaine or various salad mixes (that could contain other lettuces or vegetables grown from other farms) that contained the romaine. These are the many touch points that could be the culprit of the contamination.
Since April 1, 2018 there have been 38 food recalls from the FDA ranging from having undeclared ingredients in protein bars to Listeria monocytogenes in mini éclairs to Salmonella in organic coconut flour to this lettuce recall due to E. coli. The CDC estimates that nearly half of all food-borne illnesses are caused by produce and in a 2013 report wrote that leafy vegetables (which includes lettuces) were the number one source of food poisoning. Most of the lettuces sold in the U.S. are shipped from California. The bagged lettuce you buy in a bodega or supermarket in Manhattan had to travel 3,000 miles, hopefully in a truck that was immaculate and under the proper temperature. There are solutions that could help to avoid and more rapidly discover where these outbreaks occur. This can be achieved by leveraging technologies that can monitor our food more efficiently across the supply chain.