If there is one thing we’ve learned in recent months, it’s that the current traceability practices in the produce industry were not effective in tracing E. coli outbreaks back to their roots. Where do we go from here? How will supply chain digitization and artificial intelligence (AI) play a key role in solving these issues?


The Context

Recent Outbreak: In June 2018, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that since the first outbreak of E. coli in romaine lettuce (March 13), 197 people across 35 states had become ill and five people had died. Although authorities have no way of knowing exactly where the outbreak originated, their investigation led them to believe that the contaminated produce came from somewhere in Arizona.

First Outbreak: Over the previous holiday season, North America witnessed a first outbreak of E. coli in romaine lettuce. Dozens of people became ill and two people died in Canada and the US due to the E. coli 0157:H7 outbreak. The source of the contamination was never found.

In less than six months, millions of people were directly threatened by two deadly outbreaks, and the source of the contamination is still unknown. These food safety crises have tremendous negative effects on the consumer’s confidence and on businesses across the globe. In May 2018, romaine lettuce sales fell nearly 45 percent, while prices for whole heads of romaine were down 60 percent, according to the Wall Street Journal.

How can this happen in such a technology-driven time, where smartwatches can educate us on our sleeping patterns, cars basically drive themselves and meat is starting to be engineered and produced in laboratories?

When it comes to food safety, we cannot compromise. Consumers rely solely on food safety leaders to pave the way to a confidence-based and reliable food supply chain.

Many supply chain quality processes are still paper-based. End-to-end traceability, from raw materials to the end user, is a big challenge. Consolidation of raw material, lack of knowledge of suppliers, mislabeling, incomplete shipping information, unreliable records and lack of data collection are just a few of the reasons traceability is suboptimal.

The truth is that the food industry is a late adopter when it comes to supply chain digitization, and for many reasons.


Where to Go from Here: Digital Supply Chain Traceability

In a PricewaterhouseCoopers survey on the rise of Industry 4.0 (2016), 33% of the 2,000 respondents said their company had started to digitize their supply chains, and 72% expected to have completed this process within the next five years.

By connecting the dots of your supply chain, you are making it not only more intelligent, but also more effective. From a quality and safety standpoint, the many advantages of digital traceability within the supply chain include reduced quality-management costs, increased real-time visibility into quality processes, and optimization via big-data analytics.

Coming back to the E. coli outbreak, some would argue that even if you connect the dots of existing data with a digital supply chain, that may not be enough because the information needed was not entered – as in microbiological testing. This is where enabling technologies like AI, Internet of Things (IoT) and blockchain come into play. Blockchain, as a distributed ledger, is also a promising tool to create transparency and ensure data integrity.


Roadblocks Ahead

Digital traceability is quite promising. Nonetheless, there are challenges currently affecting its mass deployment.

The first is the adoption of new technologies, which is always a challenge, especially when under pressure to increase productivity and profitability. Most people and companies don’t know where to start, but a proven traceability expert can help meet specific needs and serve as a guide throughout the entire process.

The second challenge is cost. Implementing full traceability is initially expensive; however, considering the average cost of a recall is estimated at $10M, the return on investment is worth it. Specialized technology suppliers can offer highly flexible solutions to maximize these returns.



End-to-end digital supply chain traceability is a promising avenue to control, track and trace products for food safety concerns.

By leveraging AI, IoT and blockchain technologies, OPTEL, a global traceability leader, has developed unique traceability platforms to help small producers and Fortune 500 companies alike to tackle food safety challenges thanks to an intelligent supply chain.


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