An industrialized global food supply chain threatens human health – here’s how to improve it

In an outbreak that has now run for more than 28 months, at least 279 people across 41 states have fallen ill with multidrug-resistant Salmonella infections linked to raw turkey products. Federal investigators are still trying to determine the cause. In response to food company recalls, more than 150 tons of raw turkey products have flowed back through the supply chain as waste.

In an age when companies envision drone pizza delivery and hamburgers prepared by robots, why is it so hard to locate the source of food-borne diseases like this one?

As I show in my new book, “Food Routes: Growing Bananas in Iceland and Other Tales from the Logistics of Eating,” the challenge of tracing food-borne illnesses in the United States demonstrates that our high-tech food system is broken in fundamental ways. It also reveals a lag between announcements of new, cool tech advances and applying them to solve real problems. In the meantime people get sick, some die and food piles up in landfills.

[embedded content] Food safety is at risk at all stages of the supply chain.

Assembling food from far-flung sources

Unsafe food sickens about 600 million people every year – nearly 10% of the world’s population. Susceptibility to food-borne disease is rising as populations age. In addition, people are taking more medications, which often cause negative interactions with chemicals in highly processed foods. These interactions contribute to food-related illnesses.

And the costs of food-borne illnesses are significant – over US$15.6 billion yearly in the United States. Some of the recent increase is due to better tracking of food in the supply chain, which has improved tracing of outbreaks that might have gone unreported in the past.

But it’s one thing to detect outbreaks and another to prevent them. Globalization of the food supply chain makes this task more challenging. Ingredients come together from remote parts of the world to make pizza sauce. A simple hamburger patty from McDonald’s contains meat from 100 cows. Some 85% of the seafood Americans eat is imported, mostly from countries with lax food handling practices.

In Los Angeles, an inspector from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration prepares imported food samples for laboratory analysis. FDA/Michael J. Ermarth
Improving the global food system in ways that address food safety offers enormous payoffs, but will require compromises. In response to consumers’ insatiable desire for more personalized, individualized food products, snack companies produce popcorn in dozens of flavors, and bakeries make cupcakes with multiple types of nuts and cookies with and without gluten.

Tracking, reporting and recalling contaminated food needs to occur in real time and become more precise, and even predictive, based on a food producer’s track record. But the proliferation of food products makes efforts to track a contaminated nut back through the supply chain ever more challenging.