Tracing E-Coli Outbreaks

The news for Romaine lettuce has been bleak lately — on November 20, 2018, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) issued a frank warning not to eat any Romaine lettuce, at all. The CDC narrowed its warning on November 26, 2018 to Romaine grown in the central coastal growing regions of northern and central California. The Public Health Agency of Canada has issued a similar updated warning.

Why lettuce? Haven’t we heard this story before? This most recent outbreak comes a few months after a deadly outbreak traced back to lettuce grown in Yuma, Arizona. The culprit is likely contaminated water. Lettuce is one of the most popular vegetables in the United States. Lettuce doesn’t have a natural wrapper, like some veggies and fruit like watermelon, cucumbers, or tomatoes. Lettuce has nooks and crannies which are hard to wash. Lettuce is usually eaten raw and has a short shelf life, meaning evidence is quickly eaten or thrown away. Obama-era Food Safety Modernization Act regulations would have required certain producers to test irrigation water for pathogens, but that rule has been postponed for at least four years under the Trump administration.


The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has asked producers and distributors to include labels showing the lettuce’s origins and date of harvest. This will give consumers and retailers more information and allow regulators to trace lettuce more quickly. The leafy greens industry has agreed to establish a task force to find solutions for long-term labeling of romaine lettuce and other leafy greens for helping to identify products and to put in place standards for traceability of product.

Tracing outbreaks is an emerging industry. Knowing where a particular head of lettuce came from — the distributor, state, farm, field sector, etc. — requires a significant amount of data. Blockchain gives us a possible answer. Blockchain allows all users to access continuously updated databases, and makes that traceability more transparent. Walmart and a few other retailers are already requiring their suppliers to utilize Blockchain technology. Instead of taking days or weeks to trace back where a certain head of lettuce came from, Blockchain can give us that information in seconds. This is precious time when tracing a disease outbreak.

Blockchain also reassures today’s consumers who demand more transparency in their food chain and want to know the origin of their food. Contact a lawyer to draft your contracts with distributors, retailers, and producers to include language regarding the use of Blockchain technology to trace produce.