Hold the Onions—and the E.coli

Another outbreak of E. coli in the United States raises concerns and calls for more intense regulation. What about better tracking?
Published: December 12, 2006

In early December, several people became ill after eating at Taco Bell fast-food restaurants on Long Island, NY, where I live and work. A company hired by Taco Bell, which is owned by Yum! Brands of Louisville, Ky., first linked the E. coli to green onions. But government inspectors found no E. coli in samples of green onions taken from Taco Bell locations in the affected area. All told, 64 people in four states—New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware—were sickened by the outbreak.

E. coli (short for Escherichia coli), is a common and ordinarily harmless bacterium that lives in the guts of many animals, including humans. But when E.coli from feces gets into food and is ingested, it can cause abdominal cramps, fever, bloody diarrhea, kidney failure, blindness, paralysis and even death.

Less than three months ago, three people died and more than 200 fell ill in an E. coli outbreak that was traced to packaged fresh spinach grown in California. That outbreak cost the produce industry tens of millions of dollars.

The New York Times has suggested that the two outbreaks and a third earlier this year could be a result of sharp cuts in the budget for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (FDA CFSNA). The number of inspectors has fallen by about 250, to 1,962, over the past three years.

That might or might not be true, but the produce industry in the United States is so concerned about the potential impact of E. coli outbreaks on sales that some groups representing growers are calling for greater regulation of the industry. I can’t recall any other time in my career as a business journalist where businesspeople wanted greater regulation. A better solution might be for the government of the United States to support research into how technologies, including but not limited to RFID, can be used to protect consumers from food-borne illnesses.

The United States military has been investigating ways to marry low-cost sensors to RFID tags. These would be put in food rations to prevent an enemy from infecting soldiers or sailors with a highly infectious disease. If Congress were to put up funding for private-sector research and establish a body to coordinate the efforts of public and private groups, it could speed the introduction of cost-effective sensor technologies.

In the meantime, RFID could be used to improve track-and trace capabilities. One thing that is alarming the public each time an outbreak occurs is how long it takes to identify and track the source of the contamination. And that delay hurts businesses. Yum Brands, which owns Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, KFC and other chains, has seen its stock fall from about $63 to $58 since the outbreak was reported, a decline of 8 percent. Must be scary to watch the value of your company shrink while your supply-chain guys look for the source of your problems.

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