Blockchain Can Solve The US’ E.coli Problem
Blockchain Can Solve The US’ E.coli Problem
It’s April, in New Jersey. Hospitals are swamped with patients, creating complete mayhem out of nowhere. And rather worryingly, they all share similar symptoms: high fevers, severe dehydration, diarrhoea, and strong abdominal pains.
The bug spread to more than 22 neighbouring states, infecting children, adults and elderly alike. The bug, it seemed, spared no one. While some of the patients experienced kidney failures, the new Jersey health department managed to identify the culprit: a single strain of E.coli.
It took them a few more days to trace the source: the latest E.coli outbreak stemmed from lettuce. It might initially sound a bit odd, but E.coli in lettuce can be incredibly dangerous. It's something you normally don't cook, so it makes a perfect home for harmful bacteria.
It's not the first time lettuce has been blamed for E.coli outbreaks. And it certainly won’t be the last one either.
Patience is Key
If you have ever suffered from E.coli, you know that there’s really no cure for it.
You can treat the symptoms - the high fevers, the severe dehydration, the excruciating abdominal pains - but the bug itself needs to be fought off by your body. There’s no magic pills to swallow, no cream that will make it go away. Sometimes it takes weeks, sometimes months. It’s painful, distressing, exhausting.
In most cases, E.coli’s not lethal - as long as you keep an eye on the symptoms, of course.
“Just be patient” was the advice a bespectacled doctor gave me 2 years ago, after I got severly ill in the middle of the Moroccan desert. Being far away from anything that even slightly resembled transport and infrastructure, it’s the first - and hopefully last - time I’ve ever been taken to the ER on a camel. In case you’re not overly familiar with this mode of transportation, allow me to explain a thing or two about these long-legged, inelegant animals: while they’re not exactly known for providing a comfortable mode of transportation normally, they’re certainly not all that comfy when your body’s fighting through the early stages of an E.coli infection.
What was different, however, between my infection and the ones continually haunting the northern parts of the American continent, was that the source of my infection was quickly identified. My little strain of bacteria was immediately traced back to a farm I had visited prior to my desert adventure. This is, however, where the US is struggling.
You see, they can’t seem to trace their produce.
Lack of Traceability
In December 2017, five Canadian regions were haunted by E.coli infections. This time, it was lethal. Despite the severity, it took a surprisingly long amount of time to issue a recall - even after the infection had been linked to lettuce. Maryn McKenna, a medical journalist, has been keeping a close watch on the recent infections haunting her country. At the time, McKenna explained that “It’s likely it will take them a while to find out - while more people fall ill and massive amounts of food get thrown away - because, in the United States, we do a terrible job of tracing the path our produce takes from farm to work”.
And McKenna is absolutely right: tracing down a full head of lettuce is complicated business in the US these days. And things get even trickier when we deal with packaged or bundled goods. As an example, a bag of mixed lettuce will contain varieties of lettuce from all over the country without having to label each source on the container. So if one salad leaf in one bag contains the bacteria - how do you track down which US lettuce farm produced it?
That’s the thing - you can’t really.
Can Blockchain Trace the E.coli Outbreaks?
While it might initially sound odd, there’s reason to believe that blockchain technology can make a huge change on the US market. “So when you have a situation like this, if you are using new technology, you can trace problems very quickly”, explains Sylvain Charlebois, a Canadian food distribution expert. “I would say the weakest aspect of our food safety system is traceability.”
Charlebois estimates that, at the moment, it can take major retailers, such as for example Walmart, more than a week to trace back the origin of a product. If, on the other hand, farmers and distributors share their data digitally in a blockchain, it can take seconds.
So, let’s have a look at how this would actually work: By using a decentralized blockchain ledger, all suppliers and distributors will be easily tracked throughout the supply chain, taking you from farm to table in a matter of seconds. Every participant, whether it’s Old MacDonald, a distributor or a consumer, will register their interactions on the ledger. This will create a traceable chronology, quickly giving you identifiable points in case of emergency.
With blockchain technology, the exact source of the recent contaminations could have been recovered within a day or two. As soon as the first infection was reported, they could have traced all consumed food back to its source. The obvious benefit would be to get to the core of the problems quicker. By identifying the exact source, the exact farm, the produce could be immediately pulled from the market - hence infecting less people and potentially saving lives. Another benefit would be less food waste. Currently, the Americans are panicking so much over not being able to identify the source that they simply throw away everything it might be.
It’s perfectly obvious that something needs to be done in the US. It’s time for the food industry to consider more sophisticated ways of tracking consumer products and to limit new outbreaks. And honestly, with all the technology available today, there’s really no excuse for not doing so.
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