Now America’s lettuce is making us sick.  Last week the U.S. Food and Drug Administration ordered a massive recall of romaine lettuce believed to be contaminated with a toxic strain of E. coli bacteria. Previous recalls have decimated the spinach and tomato industries, forcing hard working farmers to destroy tens of millions of dollars worth of crops.  The outbreaks made Americans fearful of eating healthy produce.  In the most technologically advanced country on Earth, it still takes two to three weeks for the FDA to track foodborne illnesses back to the farm or point of origin. That’s an eternity for a supply chain that distributes food in 24 hours, and for a human body that sickens and dies from these diseases in hours.

The yawning gap between detection of outbreak and identification of source costs food companies billions per year as they scramble to destroy produce, deal with abrupt order cancellations, and salvage their brand reputations.  Even for innocent farmers and food companies, the disruption can be massive and costly.  Sales of romaine lettuce were likely frozen prior to pegging the source of the outbreak.  Even after the outbreak is contained, consumers will remember the romaine scare when they shop and curtail purchases.  That’s understandable.  No one likes to gamble with foodborne illnesses.

What if the FDA could reduce this time gap from two weeks to 20 minutes? What if a drop of water squeezed from a single leaf of lettuce was enough to identify the farm or food processing plant that started the epidemic? What if every food company could afford and operate this technology?  In fact, such a technology exists.  It’s powerful, it’s here, it’s affordable, and it’s easy to use.  I am referring to stable isotope analysis. This is a well-understood, scientifically credible way of analyzing molecules in a piece of food to identify ratios of oxygen, hydrogen, and carbon isotopes. Those ratios can then be mapped back to distinct geographic locations.  In other words, Mother Nature has her own built-in bar code, isotopes that are immutable and trackable.

Not surprisingly, Mother Nature’s Bar Code is way better than anything mankind has dreamed up thus far. Here’s why. The existing mechanisms to track produce through the food supply chain are focused on RFID tags or bar codes on boxes.  These technologies are great for televisions and toys.  Such systems fail miserably in monitoring food.  A single plastic box of lettuce may contain produce from multiple suppliers.  A salad bar can be even worse, with produce mixed and matched and reshuffled on a daily basis.  The bottom line is, you can’t put a bar code on every leaf of lettuce.  This gaping hole in the security system for the food supply chain makes it impossible to track all potential sources of contamination.  Did that tainted tomato come from Florida or California?  Did that contaminated milk come from Wisconsin or Oregon? The food companies can’t tell and it takes the authorities weeks to find out.

Such delays could quickly be reduced from weeks to hours or minutes if stable isotope analysis was broadly deployed across the food chain.  A food service company faced with an outbreak could squeeze water out of the produce and put a drop of that water into a stable isotope analyzer.  Then, with a press of a button, the analyzer would identify the responsible farm or region.  If it’s so easy, then why has stable isotope analysis not been used before to any great degree to safeguard the food supply?  The primary reasons are cost and complexity.  In the past, scientific instruments for stable isotope analysis cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.  Those machines required a full-time scientist or highly-trained lab technician for ongoing operations.

Today, newer systems capable of stable isotope analysis (such as the one manufactured by my company, Picarro) cost three times less upfront than older measurement technologies.  Better yet, these systems can be operated by a field manager or a production line supervisor and require minimal training.  These newer systems can handle the high-throughput required to keep up with commercial production lines and distribution facilities. Food companies could collect samples of produce from their suppliers every few months and use these samples to establish a library of stable isotope fingerprints–Mother Nature’s Bar Codes.  Forward thinking service providers, such as Isoforensics, are already building isotope maps of the country that are reference guides for food company customers and regulators.

For food companies large and small, setting up a stable isotope analysis auditing regime is now an affordable and invaluable insurance policy.  For affected companies, gaining foodborne illness intelligence quickly might prevent massive costs and even insolvency.  Witness the fate of Peanut Corp. of America, which sank into bankruptcy in Feb. 2009 less than two months after it first reported a foodborne illness problem.  For innocent growers and produce companies, stable isotope analysis will let them continue to sell their product and defend their brands.  Most importantly, the health care savings resulting from a robust food origin verification system would be immeasurable.  Foodborne illnesses afflict millions of Americans each year.  Thousands die horrible, preventable deaths from these maladies.  An ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure and Mother Nature’s Bar Code is the best tool in existence to prevent these tragedies.  The clock is ticking.