Opinion: Blockchain to the rescue

Investigations on E. coli outbreaks in North America are yet to identify the root cause. Could blockchain traceability be the solution to contamination control?

Blockchain technology in the food indusstry could work in the same fashion as traceability solutions

Two outbreaks of E. coli linked to romaine lettuce have been reported in North America and yet the source of contamination is unknown. While government bodies continue to investigate these cases, players in the industry have pointed out that blockchain technology would lend a helping hand in contamination control.

On 11 December 2017, the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) identified an outbreak involving 21 STEC O157:H7 infections in three provinces linked to romaine lettuce. Then it was the CDC PulseNet (the national subtyping network of public health and food regulatory agency laboratories), who reported a cluster of five STEC O157:H7 infections in the United States; it was then announced that the cases in both countries were genetically closely related.

In the US, 25 people were infected with the outbreak strain in 15 states. The source of the outbreak was not identified to a specific type of leafy greens.

The second outbreak, reported by the US-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), revealed that as of 16 May 2018 an outbreak strain of E. coli O157:H7 in the Yuma region in Arizona caused 172 confirmed cases of illnesses in 32 states, 75 people have been hospitalised, 20 with hemolytic-uremic syndrome (HUS), and one death.

Six illnesses were also reported in Canada due to this strain. The romaine lettuce was never recalled, but the CDC advised consumers not to eat romaine lettuce unless they are confident it does not come from Yuma. The same recommendation was sent to restaurants.

The US Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) investigated the case. Scott Gottlieb and Stephen Ostroff, FDA commissioners, commented in a joint blog: "These statistics reflect the severity of this particular foodborne illness. The kidney damage that’s associated with HUS can require temporary dialysis and the kidneys may never fully recover. For these reasons, anytime outbreaks caused by this pathogen occur, we need to find the root cause of the contamination and determine what went wrong. We need to relay these findings to industry so that measures can be put in place to prevent it from happening again."

Gottlieb and Ostroff said the outbreak the FDA is working with the leafy greens industry and technical experts to explore methods to grow and process lettuce in ways that further reduce the risk of outbreaks. "We live in an era of unprecedented innovation and technology, and we want to bring more of that innovation and technology to bear to help solve this problem and ensure consumer confidence in healthy fruits and vegetables."

Players in the industry have suggested blockchain technology can be an innovative solution in contamination control.

Blockchain technology is briefly defined as a way of storing and sharing information across a network of users in an open virtual space, simultaneously and in real-time. Applied to the food industry, it would work in the same fashion as traceability solutions; a retailer would know with whom a supplier has dealt with, and would track transactions, storage and location of the goods.

Could blockchain help prevent product recall? Is time to lay hands on blockchain technology as a contamination control solution? It certainly would require further development to make blockchain fit for purpose; the impact of this technology is promising and worth investigating.

The joint blog by the FDA commissioners is available online.