If you have not heard about the E. coli (Escherichia coli) outbreak in the states of Oregon and Washington in Fall 2015, then you might want to take a quick break and check what the news reported … this could be a game changer, not only for Chipotle — the Mexican restaurant chain connected to the most recent illnesses — but also for the restaurant industry as a whole. Chipotle instituted the right steps and voluntarily closed 43 of its stores (12 in the Portland area, the rest in Washington) but not before dozens of people got sick.
Following the Food Chain Offers Clues
The question is: How did this bacteria end up in the food chain in the first place? Sometimes, knowing how is not so much the question, but where did the bacteria originate. The FDA and CDC use the term “traceback” when looking to find where such an outbreak occurred. Often, investigators look at the clustering of people who have the same sickness from common eateries. Then, those eateries will be investigated to see if their inventory documentation is in order, i.e., who their suppliers are. From that point back, the food distributors and farms will be investigated until the culprit is found.
In April 2012, there was an outbreak of salmonellosis reported to the CDC and other state public safety departments. The first week, there were 93 cases reported. By the end of May almost 500 cases were reported. By using the traceback analysis, the FDA was able to pinpoint the origins of this outbreak to frozen tuna and to one supplier. It is hard to stop such outbreaks from happening from the supplier end, but it can be thwarted by the trace-forward procedure that begins when the perpetrator is found. Trace-forward is simply finding additional pathways of exposure that can be closed to food products entering the supply-chain without proper documentation.
Technology and Traceability
According to Food Safety News, 15 percent of the food that is consumed in the U.S. comes from outside of the country, and 80 percent of all seafood is imported. Needless to say, traceability software programs have become a valuable tool, not only to protect the consumers, but also the manufacturing firms. Use of bar codes, electronic business standards, global data synchronization and radio frequency identification (RFID) and Uniform Product Codes (UPCs), all assist in helping trace where the food has come from and where it ended up.
In addition, businesses are built to support the need of knowing exactly where food comes from. Large restaurants, like Cheesecake Factory, depend on N2N Global and its technologies to ensure the quality of their food.
So what is traceability? The preferred definition of traceability from Food Standards is “the ability to track any food through all stages of production, processing and distribution (including importation and at retail). Traceability should mean that movements can be traced one step backwards and one step forward at any point in the supply chain.”
Change is Already Here
In the case of Chipotle, there is a silver lining in that the government has created a new law allowing the FDA to create new rules for food importation. All foods arriving at the U.S. borders must meet American safety standards. It also places the onus of policing this policy on the companies that are importing these foods, something that larger companies are already doing. As reported in The New York Times on November 13, Michael R. Taylor, the FDA’s deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine, stated, “Under the new rules, importers will have the obligation to verify they are meeting U.S. standards,” Mr. Taylor said. “This is a fundamental paradigm shift from the FDA detecting and responding to problems with imported foods to industry being responsible for preventing them.”
There is genuine hope that these new rules will protect the consumer, but also newer technology that allows the collection of data on all products coming into the U.S.A. will allow for quicker responses and solutions should an outbreak occur.
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