By Scott Mechura EBS Food Columnist
I was reading a food industry journal the other day called “The Produce News.” It is full of information, such as how a heavy rain in a Mexican valley upped tomato prices by 9 cents; or how a carrot processor is moving their annual production from Salinas, California, to Yuma, Arizona. Riveting stuff I know.
But one article in particular struck me.
It was about the unusually high number of E. coli outbreaks in lettuce, primarily in romaine lettuce, in 2018.
Most produce processing facilities are enormous, with literally tons of produce passing through these plants in less than 24 hours. When I toured Mann’s, in Salinas Valley, the loading lots are the size of a mall parking lot, and if you were to show up the next day, every container of produce would have been replaced from the day before.
I have seen some of the most technologically advanced machinery in the processing of produce, specifically lettuces and carrots, in action. The complexity, efficiency, and intricacy of these facilities is beyond words. And yet, when it comes to tracking the produce through its entire journey, it is shockingly done with old fashioned pen and paper.
But most producers and processers finally agree that this antiquated method needs a serious upgrade. And they have identified blockchain technology as the answer. With the use of an incorruptible digital ledger, blockchain should bring some clarity to such a massive and vital component of our food system. The goal is that all major producers will have a new digital tracking system up and running by October 2019.
In the current system, when an identified or potential outbreak occurs, produce must be painstakingly tracked down nationwide and discarded. It can take well over a week to trace heads of lettuce, spinach, or tomatoes. With the new proposed tracking system, it could take mere seconds. And without accurate, reliable tracking, the volume of food being thrown away to err on the side of caution, is inefficient, wasteful, and honestly, sickening.
All of this made me think, why hasn’t this tracking system upgrade happened already? The beef industry has had pinpoint tracking of livestock for years.
If you are a seedstock rancher or raise cattle for their genetic makeup to be sold to ranchers who raise the cattle we eat, the amount of data kept and tracked is impressive.
And if you are a rancher raising livestock for consumption, the tracking is equally as detailed.
Those tags on a cow’s ear have a series of numeric codes that contain a wealth of information. Stats on that animal are meticulously tracked at every stage of its provenance.
Their system and data is so thorough and precise that if a problem with a batch of steaks is identified in China, or France, or Florida, they know the exact ranch those steaks originated on, the birth date of that cow, and everywhere it was in between.
After the most recent E.coli outbreak in romaine lettuce, supplier giants Sam’s Club and Walmart are leading the way in requesting that the current tracking system be updated, and offering their assistance to do so.
Say what you will about big corporations, but they do possess the clout and influence to do good.
Scott Mechura has spent a life in the hospitality industry. He is a former certified beer judge and currently the Executive Chef at Buck’s T-4 Lodge in Big Sky.