By Lisa Bard, Contributing Editor

Safe. Secure. Sustainable. That was the focus of the Colorado State University (CSU) 2018 Ag Innovation Summit held Sept. 21 in Fort Collins. A variety of presentations touched on subjects surrounding a safe, secure and sustainable global food supply and the role innovation in agriculture will play. The afternoon panel specifically addressed Innovation in Mitigation and Response and was chaired by Keith Belk, Ph.D., Professor, CSU Ken and Myra Monfort Endowed Chair at the Center for Meat Safety and Quality.

Panelists included Alfred Almanza, JBS head of food safety and quality assurance; Nathan Dorn, chief executive officer and co-founder of Food Origins; and Stephen Laughlin, vice president and general manager, global consumer industry, IMB Corporation.

These experts were gathered to provide insight on how agriculture can prevent or respond to crises resulting from foodborne illness outbreaks. Coincidentally, this discussion came at the very time that Cargill Meat Solutions was recalling 132,000 pounds of ground beef that may have been contaminated with E. coli O157:H7.

The first to address the issue, Almanza brought a unique perspective, having served as the deputy undersecretary for food safety and administrator of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) for several years before taking his current position with JBS. Almanza said part of the problem in dealing with these types of crises is that there is no uniform way or system for medical professionals to report illnesses. Without this, it may take some time to recognize an outbreak and, by then, much of the product may already be consumed.

According to Almanza, the FSIS relies on the Center for Disease Control (CDC) for information that will help them decide how to react to outbreaks. The FSIS and CDC look at the data relative to possible foodborne illnesses to determine if there is link between the illnesses and something in the food chain. This leads some to think that the FSIS is reacting slowly, which is not the case; they are merely monitoring it until it is very clear that there is an outbreak.

“A situation like we have encountered with this current outbreak drives home the fact that we need to find better ways for prevention,” Almanza said. “While we cannot test every pound of meat that goes through a plant, we are doing everything possible there. But by the time a test finds something, we are too late. We need to get better at figuring out what causes these things to occur, because testing is not efficient at prevention.”

Food Origins is a small, privately held, precision-data company focused on hand-harvested crops such as berries, lettuce and other field-to-plate foods. There is no processing step with these foods after harvest and distribution, so testing is also a key factor and tool – but also not enough and too late to prevent a foodborne illness outbreak.

Nathan Dorn, Food Origins’ CEO, sees a food safety and traceability system as more of an insurance model. Food Origins started out as a labor and energy efficiency company that designed a system from the ground up that would improve data capture and production mapping, including a supply-chain management system. They devised handheld devices for field workers so that they can register a product as it’s harvested.

“If an outbreak happens, we can look back and identify the common points long before testing ever happened,” Dorn said.

There was an outbreak of E. coli in romaine lettuce from Arizona that took almost four months to identify the cause of, but with the data they were collecting, it was eventually narrowed down and identified. “On a high level, that is what we are trying to do [identify causes]. On a practical or field level, these are tough changes,” Dorn said. “It’s not easy to get field workers to utilize handheld devices to register the harvest.”

However, Dorn pointed out that point-of-harvest data collection raises the accountability of the people harvesting the crops, treating them like the professionals they are. Rather than feeling like they are being watched, it helps them realize that how they do what they do matters.

Stephen Laughlin with IMB Corporation said that their use of blockchain technology and how it was developed and modified for use in food production was a bit like a hammer looking for a nail. They had the technology and were looking for business problems in consumer products, agriculture, retailers, etc., that needed their solution.

“Blockchain technology works because you have shared and trusted data. Multiple parties must validate and verify the blocks of data along the way,” Laughlin said. “It’s simply a shared database and, once verified, you don’t argue about your data versus my data.”

With Walmart as one of their largest clients, IMB proposed a concept to capture data at the field level and store it in a single data store – the blockchain – so that when there was an incident or an outbreak, they could quickly identify the farm, the lot and the day it originated. It was a concept that resonated with Walmart and presented huge applications. Kroger, Driscoll’s, McCormick and others are looking at implementing this technology.

Laughlin used the example of the 2006 E. coli outbreak in spinach that took months to identify, resulting in a huge health crisis and  a decimated spinach industry. It took spinach six years to recover and get back to the pre-outbreak sales volumes. While Laughlin was careful not to downplay the health issue and loss of life, he did highlight the significant economic loss as well. Blockchain technology allows for source identification of a product to go from days or weeks down to seconds.

According to Laughlin, there are currently millions of products on the blockchain, with more requests coming in daily, and not only for fresh products, but ingredients as well. They are tailoring blockchain technology to trace things like food temperature, meat aging, consumption trends and shelf life, all resulting in spoilage reduction and other applications.

“In some regards, this food safety issue is the spark for the bigger issue of supply chain, visibility, waste and distribution,” Laughlin said. “The problem of food safety that we are solving will be the impetus of how to feed the world. Blockchain technology will help us figure out distribution problems, supply issues and waste issues.”

Q & A:

After the initial thoughts from the panelists, Belk opened the session for audience Q & A, which further explored the issue of mitigation and response.

Q: In reference to the recent outbreak in Fort Morgan, it looks like the product was out on shelves in May and is likely already consumed. Does this technology help with that – and other outbreaks – and if so, how?

Dorn: Yes, the technology it will help as it will allow us to remove product that is the source of the outbreak long before we can identify what caused it. It prevents us from recalling an entire industry and removing product that is not affected. We pull the product causing the problem and then find out why.

Almanza: Traceback will shorten the time of recall, and that is important, but when dealing with FSIS and CDC, we need to get the medical system improved so that doctors and labs and hospitals will report illnesses or symptoms consistently.

Q: In outbreaks where it’s already happened, what are the tools coming through innovation that can help us to prevent them from occurring to begin with?

Almanza: The responsible use of animal drugs is key. We need to be less focused on the dollar and more on focused human health. We need to pay attention to what we are feeding and be smarter about that. The return on investment of these technologies is very positive and immediate because you only need one outbreak to make it pay for itself.

Dorn: Using technology has resulted in workers taking more pride in what they do, raises the bar for the harvesters so that they do better work and stops incidences from happening. It also allows us to not decimate an entire industry. There are other efficiencies that will be generated from these innovations. We have clients who look at these technologies as a way to extend their work in progress (WIP). With a supply chain/distribution solution that comes from using these innovations, they can sell fresh product before it ever hits the docks. That is not small – that may be $1 million a day for some producers.

Laughlin: We continue to invest a lot of money in research that will innovate. We now have a modifier that allows us to see E. coli, and we are getting to the point where we can answer the questions that are asked. The technology is getting more affordable and accessible, and now it’s more a case of the imagination and how to implement a technology. It’s not a business problem, but a case of bridging the imagination. Sometimes it is complex in getting the different stakeholders to align, but the value is there.

Q: While there are many opportunities for improvement, has our food supply ever been safer?

Almanza: Every day, our food supply gets safer. We’ve never seen the numbers lower than they are today for E. coli O157, but how do you say that to a family whose loved one has just died? There is always room for improvement.

Dorn: The rest of the world envies what we do because of what we do and how we do it. The pride that the U.S. farmer/rancher takes in their production is what makes a difference. Even the field workers take pride in what they do so that the consumer gets the best product possible.

Q: How do we apply these safety methods to foreign-sourced foods and new products that have little history with food chain stakeholders?

Laughlin: We are beginning to apply metrics and analytics to blockchain data and, by using artificial intelligence (AI), you can tell if the data is being artificially inputted or manipulated. As we start to use standards and capture data early on, we begin to understand patterns based on the life cycles of products. By using the history of learned patterns, we apply that to the data and machine learnings, and we can see bogus patterns.

Almanza: Every country has a different platform for their data systems, and getting one to speak to another is not always easy, but food safety is not something we need to be proprietary about. When a product is rejected from a country for whatever reason, it would be beneficial to all other prospective buyers to know why it is rejected. The closer we get to sharing these data systems, the better we will all be.

Dorn: I see this as a competitive opportunity. If we can unleash a level of transparency on the consumer, will they be willing to pay more for a product? If it creates a distinguishable advantage – and we improve efficiencies in the process – will that add value? To many, transparency seems to be a cost, but I see it as an opportunity.

Laughlin: Many see this as a way to enhance brand value via transparency that adds quality and economic value. It is a way to tell the story behind the food, and the story could be sustainability, ethical business or labor practices or the story of the individual farm. Consumers may be willing to pay more for knowing more.

Q: The cattle industry agreed years ago not to compete on beef safety. Will this model work for other industries, and does it work in a capitalistic society?

Almanza: Under a crisis, food safety is not competitive. In normal business, if a company finds a technology that gives them the competitive edge, makes their product better and does not make the rest of the industry bad, then that technology may not be shared.

Dorn: Ag is data rich and decision poor, so it may be how you use that data that will make you competitively different. Being able to make positive decisions on the data you have is what makes you different.

Laughlin: I’m essentially a dealer, and we try to sell our technology to everyone. If or how someone uses the tools or data depends on their objectives. If one company has the technology, then under today’s markets, all other companies have had the ability to implement it if they wanted to. Companies will use different ways to drive their brand in different directions, so they don’t compete in the ways they used to.

For more information on the CSU 2018 Ag Innovation Summit, go to csuaginnovationsummit.colostate.edu.