Mending Broken Links

By Mark Roberti

The recent salmonella-peanut butter outbreak reveals how complex the food supply chain is, and why a comprehensive approach to recalls is needed.


When salmonella was first traced back to a Georgia plant owned by the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA), it seemed the outbreak would be easily contained. PCA sold peanut butter mainly to food service companies that supplied hospitals, schools, prisons and the like. The company didn’t sell peanut butter products to the major brands consumers buy, such as Jif and Skippy.

But, it turns out, the outbreak affected many more companies and products than first expected. So far, some 2,200 products containing contaminated peanut butter or peanuts from PCA—including brownies, cakes, chicken satay, frozen cookie dough, Valentine’s candy, ice cream, stuffed celery and even dog food—have been recalled.

When spinach was tainted with E. coli in 2006, investigators found that tracing the source was difficult because the greens from different farms had been mixed together.

The incident highlights how complex the food supply chain has become, and how difficult it can be to track ingredients moving through the supply chain. For example, peanut butter can be coated with chocolate to make peanut butter cups. Those cups could be sold to other companies that either sell them or mix them into ice cream, which is sold either to a supermarket that sells it as a private-label brand or to a major ice-cream producer.

The incident also highlights another problem: Companies can be affected even when they’re not at fault. Peanut butter sales dropped 25 percent during a four-week period in January and February. And a family in Oregon is suing Kellogg’s, a $13 billion consumer packaged goods company, because their 3-year-old was struck with severe symptoms of salmonella poisoning after eating peanut butter crackers. The lawsuit says Kellogg’s was negligent because it failed to use ingredients that were “safe, wholesome, free of defects.” The lawsuit also says the company “had a duty to carefully select and monitor its suppliers” but “failed to adequately supervise them.”

Based on a study conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) a decade ago, the Associated Press estimates there are now 87 million cases of food-borne illnesses each year, resulting in 371,000 hospitalizations and 5,700 deaths. As much as a quarter of the U.S. population suffers a food-borne illness annually, though only a fraction of those cases gets linked to high-profile outbreaks such as the recent salmonella peanut scare, the CDC says.

But the challenges that need to be overcome to secure the food chain are significant. One challenge is data collection. We need to be able to track each ingredient as it moves through the supply chain and is added into a food product. When spinach was tainted with E. coli in 2006, investigators found that tracing the source was difficult, because companies that sell bags of prewashed mixed salads buy from a variety of farms and mix the greens together in large washing tubs before bagging and shipping the products.

Another challenge is getting all companies in the food industry to collect this data. And a third is being able to access information from many companies quickly and use it to recall products in time to limit an outbreak of food-borne illness.

Radio frequency identification could be used to collect data automatically and cost-effectively, but securing the food chain requires a holistic approach. How would Kellogg’s benefit in implementing such a system if the peanut butter it received from a company such as PCA wasn’t tagged? And what good would it do PCA to tag shipments of peanut butter if it didn’t receive tagged shipments of raw peanuts from farmers?

All companies need to adopt such a system simultaneously, and it must include a way to share the data captured on food shipments with investigators. That clearly isn’t going to happen without government involvement.

Government involvement could come in the form of regulation enacted in response to a large-scale outbreak of food-borne illness. A more enlightened approach would be for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to use funds from the recently passed stimulus package to run comprehensive pilots that would determine how a food safety system could be set up that would benefit both businesses, by making the supply chain more efficient, and consumers, by making the food supply safer.

Among the questions this initiative would need to answer are:

• Which are the most cost-effective data-collection technologies for use in the food chain?

• What data needs to be captured and where in the supply chain, to enable both efficient recalls and supply-chain visibility that benefits businesses?

• What network and database infrastructure needs to be established to enable data to be retrieved quickly in the event of a recall?

• Who could or would manage databases of information?

• What levels of savings could be achieved by using RFID and other technologies to track shipments of food?

Is there enough waste that can be squeezed out of the food chain to offset the cost of tagging and tracking shipments with RFID, 2-D bar codes and other technologies? Consider this: More than half of the food produced globally is lost, wasted or discarded as a result of inefficiency in the human-managed food chain, according to a study released in February by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

The study says food losses and waste in the United States could be as high as 50 percent. Up to one-fourth of all fresh fruits and vegetables in the United States is lost between the field and the table. The study also finds that after decades of falling food prices, the trend is reversing and food prices may increase by 30 percent to 50 percent within decades.

The Earth’s population is forecast to rise to nearly 10 billion in 2050, from 6.76 billion today. UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner says all 10 billion people could be fed with the same amount of food produced today if we could just become more efficient. That’s going to take a partnership between government and private food companies—and some badly needed vision and leadership.

Major Outbreaks of Food Poisoning in the United States

• 2009 More than 600 illnesses and nine deaths in 44 states due to peanut butter contaminated with salmonella are reported to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

• 2008 In the largest beef recall in U.S. history, 143 million pounds of beef produced by Westland/Hallmark Meat Co. are pulled from store shelves. Salmonella poisoning linked to hot peppers and tomatoes from Mexico sickens more than 1,400.

• 2007 More than 100 brands of pet food manufactured in China are recalled after melamine poisons hundreds of pets, causing kidney failure and death.

• 2006 An outbreak of E. coli in spinach sickens at least 146 people in 23 states, according to the CDC.

• 2002 At least 650 people at a Dallas hotel consume tainted salsa and return home to all 50 states with salmonella poisoning.

• 1997 Hudson Foods Co. recalls 25 million pounds of beef because of E. coli contamination. Twenty people are sickened.

• 1993 More than 500 people fall ill and four die from an E. coli contamination of beef patties sold at Jack-in-the-Box restaurants in the Pacific Northwest and Western states.

Source: Dallas Morning News research