How can we learn valuable lessons from the recent Europe-wide recent eColi outbreak?

Pascal Durdu, food traceability expert at Zetes, discusses some of the main questions Zetes has been asked since this outbreak began

Why was it difficult to prove the source of the eColi outbreak?

A lack of concrete traceability information available made it difficult to isolate and identify the contamination source.  This made it impossible to conduct a targeted recall.  With better traceability, the numbers of companies implicated would have been lower.

How could traceability systems help to avoid this situation?

Traceability allows food business operators to minimise the disruption and cost to the trade and maintain higher levels of consumer confidence. 

The food industry could learn from the pharma sector.  As a result of new regulations, this sector now captures product serial number, lot number and expiry date using a Datamatrix on every packet of prescription drugs. 

We already have a traceability system, isn’t it sufficient?

Most systems only track the lot number which usually refers to the production site, where a lot comprises hundreds of individual cartons. This makes it difficult to isolate contamination problems.   

It is important to know what might have impacted external environment of fresh produce.  This requires reducing the unit of identification and employing tracking at the carton or case level.

How would a traceability system work in practice?

A unique, serialised number is applied to products either at the unit or carton level.  By using next generation barcodes, more detailed information can be recorded and shared.  After labeling, the barcode can be read at different stages through the supply chain and new information can be added to enhance the audit trail.  

What level of product information should be captured and why?

As a minimum, product or raw material origins, batch and other product information like pick dates, sell by or expiry dates and conditions during transportation should be recorded.  This means problems can be isolated quickly and a very targeted recall conducted.  

How can wastage and shrinkage levels be cut through better traceability?

By capturing more data in a standardized, automatically readable format, such as expiry date information, would help significantly reduce wastage levels by automating process control and stock management.  

Information about possible compromises to product quality or contamination risks during transportation would highlight that the FIFO (first in first out) method is not always the best.