Saturday, June 4, 2011

Food Safety in Global Supply Chains

What is more important than the air we breathe and the food that we eat?!

The news coming from the European continent is shocking with 18 deaths reported, and close to 2,000 suffering from a rare E. Coli bacteria that officials believe was in the food supply, most likely in raw vegetables (cukes, tomatoes, and lettuce have been prime suspects, although the specific strain has not been found in the vegetables), with the majority of the illnesses being traced to northern Germany, specifically, Hamburg.

At this time of the year, when spring is in the northern hemisphere and the consumption of produce is up, to have hundreds hospitalized with severe kidney malfunctions is horrifying.

I travel a lot and enjoy the local, fresh cuisine whenever possible and who would expect such food-borne illnesses in such a highly developed country as Germany? A Swede has died after traveling to Germany and there are supposedly several in the US, also who traveled to Germany, now ill. We actually heard about this major health calamity from the owner of one of our local farms who has a wonderful soft ice cream stand, since she has relatives in that part of Germany, before the news even reached the major western media.

Food safety is essential as is food traceability. Dr. Mary Helander who spoke on a research panel on food safety recently at the INFORMS conference at UMass gave a brilliant talk on the topic in our Speaker Series and you can access her presentation here, which I wrote about on this blog. Ironically, shortly after her talk, there was an outbreak of E. Coli poisoning in hamburgers in the US.

A few years ago, I was on the doctoral dissertation of a student, Mr. Diogo M. Souza Monteiro, whose dissertation was entitled, Theoretical and Empirical Analysis of the Economics of Traceability Adoption in Food Supply Chains. He is now a professor in England, and visited us last Fall. He had also been a student in one of my Management Science classes in which we used my Network Economics book and had done a very nice project on vertical integration in food supply chains. He also cited several of our papers on supply chains and risk management in his dissertation. His dissertation advisor, Professor Julie Caswell, served on a major FDA panel on food safety and risk.

What is happening in Europe now regarding the food supply is turning into a major international incident since countries are refusing produce from certain countries.

I was invited to give keynotes at two different conferences in China that took place last week. Reading about food safety issues there as well as pollution gave me serious pause (you probably have seen the articles on watermelons exploding there due to injected chemicals, the milk being adulterated, and I stop here) and I was advised not to travel there. One of my keynotes in Shenzhen was delivered via videotape. Now, interestingly, Chinese scientists, from Shenzhen, are helping German scientists, to decipher the genetic code of the rare E. Coli bacteria! According to The New York Times, this Chinese laboratory said that the contagion had been caused by a “new strain of bacteria that is highly infectious and toxic.”

Food safety in global supply chains will require not only technology but also the cooperation among all the stakeholders from producers and distributors to consumers as well as regulators. In the meantime, people are very afraid and will continue to be until the source(s) of this severe outbreak is found.