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OM in the News: E.Coli and the Lettuce Supply Chain

April 30, 2018

Romaine lettuce is the source of a growing E.coli outbreak.

A growing nationwide E.coli outbreak linked to romaine lettuce has revived concerns over a leafy green industry that has long grappled with how to produce safe food. And questions remain over the origins of the more than 98 illnesses across 22 states. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration said that it is still looking for the lettuce source.

The outbreak from romaine lettuce grows to the largest multistate E. coli outbreak since one in 2006 tied to spinach that killed 3 people and sickened more than 200. The strain of E. coli making people sick is particularly virulent, leading to a high hospitalization rate. The FDA said it isn’t clear at what point in the supply chain the whole-head lettuce was contaminated. “In this case you’re looking at a more of a web trying to figure out where it came from,” said one exec.

Much of the difficulty in pinpointing an outbreak’s origin, writes The Wall Street Journal (April 28-29, 2018), stems from the complexity of the U.S. supply chain, in which food is grown, packed, processed and shipped by multiple companies before it reaches grocery store shelves. Produce from different farms can be combined into a single shipment to buyers. Product labels often don’t indicate where lettuce was grown. “Tracking a product from the farm through to the point of sale isn’t easy,” said a food-safety expert. “It’s not a new problem and it’s obviously not fixed.”

Blockchain, which we have discussed in several recent posts, may be one answer.

Classroom discussion questions:

  1. Why is this supply chain so complex?
  2. Why is lettuce a particular health risk?
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