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By Maggie Fox
Twice this year, federal health officials warned Americans not to eat romaine lettuce and asked stores to throw away all their provisions.
It was not because all the country's romaine lettuce was contaminated. This was because there was no good way to quickly determine where the contaminated lettuce was coming from. When people started dying from E. coli infections last spring, the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention decided that the safest bet was simply to tell people to stop eat it.
It took weeks to reduce the spring epidemic to Yuma, Arizona. It took several days to trace this fall's epidemic in central California. In the best case, as soon as someone got sick, it would have been possible to determine what he was eating and where he was coming from, in order to be able to close a farm, a processor or a distributor. in particular.
Instead, it takes days to even detect an epidemic, more days to ask people what they ate recently to try to find a food that all patients had in common, and sometimes several weeks to find a common source for this food.
"It's very difficult and time consuming," said Dr. Laura Gieraltowski, who leads the CDC's Foodborne Epidemic Response Team. "Grocery stores may not keep the box containing the labels of the distribution center or the location of the grower." And for the moment, without this box, many stores have no trace of where the food comes from.
"We are in a difficult position in that we have not been able to completely isolate a specific producer or region for mandatory recall," said FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb , at NBC News last week.
It's a frustrating and ineffective process, and the FDA is now turning to a mega-retailer to help solve the problem: Walmart.
The FDA hired Frank Yiannas, Walmart's vice president of food safety, as deputy commissioner for food and veterinary medicine. Gottlieb hopes Yiannas can help convince the US food industry to adopt a computerized system that tracks each lettuce head, or mango box, or chicken pieces, all the way from the farm to the store. or at the restaurant.
"One of his areas of expertise is the development of blockchain technology for traceability," Gottlieb said.
The blockchain is an abbreviated term for a way to keep accurate records of time-stamped and hard-to-edit transactions. Used in food distribution, it would be a safe way to track foods as they are harvested, processed, packaged, distributed and sold.
Gottlieb views the blockchain as a useful tool to help tame the free system that contains many types of foods now in the United States table.
"We would like to link the epidemic to a specific producer, farm or distributor," Gottlieb said.
"We hope to be able to roll out some of these technologies in the coming years … so that when we go out with a warning, it's not a general warning not to eat romaine lettuce."
Walmart itself is still trying to deploy the technology, said company spokeswoman Molly Blakeman. The first step is to convince all of its food suppliers to join IBM's computer technology.
"All suppliers of fresh green leafy vegetables should be able to find their products on farms (by production batch) in seconds, not days. This will require suppliers to capture end-to-end traceability information digitally using the IBM Food Trust network, "Walmart said in a letter to suppliers last September.
The company does not expect its suppliers to comply with next year. Some still use paper documents.
"Some of them are not yet digitized. They would need this technology, "said Blakeman. "We have worked with IBM to make it affordable." The company is trying to negotiate a sliding scale for farms and distributors providing fresh produce, so that they pay according to their size.
But if it worked, products would be tagged and digitized at every stage of the process, from the farm to the processor, through packaging and delivery. Thus, in the event of an outbreak of foodborne illness, health workers would gain days, or even weeks, of tracing, and could send more specific warnings to consumers more quickly.
This could mean having the choice between romaine lettuce safely during a booster. And this will save stores and distributors the huge losses they often incur when they have to withdraw a product from the wholesale trade.
For starters, the FDA has worked out an agreement for producers to start labeling romaine lettuce. It is now a voluntary process, say the United Fresh Produce Association and the Produce Marketing Association in a joint statement. "Your records can eliminate your business from a recall," he tells members.
What Blockchain will not do is prevent foodborne outbreaks from happening.
Consumer groups are pressuring the FDA to delay the adoption of a rule that would require producers to test their irrigation irrigation. The spring outbreak of E. Coli, which killed five people and more than 200 other patients, was attributed to romaine lettuce grown in Yuma, Arizona. It was eventually attributed to the contaminated water of the canal.
Similarly, a 2006 epidemic has been attributed to California-grown spinach that may have been contaminated with wild pig manure or, possibly, from nearby livestock farms.
The 2011 Food Safety Modernization Act ordered the FDA to tighten food safety regulations. In 2015, the agency issued a final rule that gave producers until the beginning of the year, in 2022, to test the quality of water. But the FDA has delayed the implementation of the rule.
"The Trump administration is poised to put the health of Americans at risk to appease Big Ag and food companies," said George Kimbrell, legal director of the Center for Food Safety. "This shameful delay could literally cost the lives of Americans."
The Center for Food Safety and the Center for Science in the Public Interest want the FDA to accelerate these rules and not delay them.
"Americans deserve to know that their products have not been grown or rinsed in water contaminated with animal droppings," said Sarah Sorscher, Deputy Director of Legislative Affairs at CSPI.
Gottlieb denies that his agency has delayed the rule for political reasons.
"We are fully committed to this rule," he said. "There is nothing that I have removed or delayed which, in my opinion, would have had an impact on food security," he added, saying the FDA was making rapid progress in food security.
But they said the rule was "very difficult to implement".
"It's not that we have made the political decision to delay this," he said.
Contaminated food is an extremely common problem. The CDC estimates that 48 million Americans are sick every year, accounting for one in six people. About 128,000 people are sick enough to be hospitalized and 3,000 die. Germs to blame include listeria, salmonella, E. coli and cyclospora.