If you have any Romaine lettuce in your crisper, it’s time to chuck it. Yesterday the Center for Disease Control (CDC) announced that romaine lettuce is unsafe to eat in any form due to contamination by a dangerous type of E. Coli bacteria.
The warning throws a large net, covering any lettuce already purchased, or waiting to be bought either wholesale or on supermarket shelves. And with good reason. According to the Washington Post, the CDC doesn’t know where, when, or how the contamination happened. Which means that instead of pinpointing the source(s) of contamination and eliminating lettuce just from those suppliers, they have to play it safe and sentence all Romaine nationwide to the trash bin.
Not only does that ruin a lot of Caesar salads — especially ones destined for the Thanksgiving table — but it also creates a mountain of food waste, and could have wide-reaching effects on produce farmers. This outbreak also comes only a few months after another load of E. Coli-contaminated Romaine (apparently unrelated to the current batch) left 5 dead.
One tool which some think could help solve the problem is blockchain. While blockchain can’t prevent an outbreak from happening, it can help quickly identify the source so that farmers can prevent further contamination. It also allows retailers to take only contaminated products off their shelves, so they aren’t stuck tossing out the baby with the bathwater.
Some companies are already harnessing blockchain to try and increase food traceability. In September, Walmart announced that they would require all its leafy green vegetable suppliers to upload production data to the blockchain through its IBM Food Trust Network. Ripe.io is recently raised $2.4 million to create its “Blockchain for Food,” which allows users to access a detailed record of any food item at any time.
Food traceability company FoodLogiQ is also experimenting with blockchain. In June they launched an R&D hub to explore new technologies in food safety. The first project’s focus: blockchain.
I reached out to FoodLogiQ’s CMO Katy Jones to get her take on the latest Romaine recall. She said that news like this illustrates just how direly we need end-to-end traceability in the food system. And blockchain could play a role in that.
“[Blockchain has] potential to be a transformative method to open up transparency in the food supply chain,” she said.
But it’s not a perfect solution. “Without data built on a common standard and supply chain partners committed to gathering and reporting on that data, blockchain alone will not solve these issues,” concluded Jones. After all, at its core blockchain is just a ledger, which means it’s only as good as the information that humans — who have been known to make mistakes — enter.
The bottom line is that we don’t know how effective blockchain will be in helping to identify and mitigate outbreaks. But we do know that until the majority of farmers, retailers, and everyone in between is united in using the new technology, blockchain won’t be the magic bullet that some hope it to be. Sorry, lettuce lovers.