Europe’s E. coli Outbreak

The tragic deaths of 18 people in Europe from an outbreak of E. coli poisoning highlights, once again, the need for traceability in the food supply chain.
Published: June 3, 2011

The need to develop a global system for tracking food through the global supply chain becomes more evident every year. For the past two summers, the United States has experienced outbreaks of food-borne illnesses. This year, it’s Europe’s turn. As of this writing, 18 people have died from an unusually lethal strain of E. coli that has sickened more than 1,500 others.

The tragedy has been made worse by claims from German authorities that the bacteria originated in produce grown in Spain. That turned out to be incorrect, but such claims didn’t help farmers in Andalusia, who wound up unable to sell much of their vegetables and some fruits. Spanish authorities say farmers in Spain are losing €200 million ($290 million) every week.

The authorities still don’t know where the E. coli originated, and therein lies the problem. Food can’t be recalled if no one knows what to recall. And consumers can’t go back to eating vegetables if they don’t have confidence that dangerous greens have been removed from store shelves.

Given that so much food is imported these days, the world needs a system for tracking shipments, so that when a problem pops up, it can quickly be traced to the source. This is not easy to do. One reason is that farmers have little spare money to invest in track-and-trace systems. Moreover, powerful farmers in the United States and elsewhere would no doubt lobby against any regulations that increased their costs.

Perhaps the solution is a global 0.5 percent tax on food. The money collected could be used to subsidize the purchase of 2-D bar-code, RFID and GPS systems to track food from the farm to the kitchen table. Organizations such as GS1, which runs the Global Data Synchronization Network, could provide services that would allow captured data to be shared securely with supply chain partners and, when necessary, with agricultural authorities looking to trace an outbreak of food-borne illness.

The potential for more serious outbreaks of disease is serious. New drug-resistant bacteria strains are being discovered every year. The incidence of food-borne illness seems to be on the rise, as the global food chain grows more complex and integrated. Increasingly, farmers are being wiped out by problems such as the one in Germany. The status quo just isn’t working—it’s time to apply technology to the problem.

Mark Roberti is the founder and editor of RFID Journal. If you would like to comment on this article, click on the link below. To read more of Mark’s opinions, visit the RFID Journal Blog, the Editor’s Note archive or RFID Connect.