The English language is weird. It is a hodge-podge mix of many languages that has evolved in transformative ways over the decades and centuries leading to today. As a result, it is full of ambiguous and tangentially similar terms that can simultaneously have very different meanings. Collectively, these linguistic idiosyncrasies can create substantial risk for your business and your customers. One area where we see frequent confusion is in the distinction between “cause” and “source.”

At first glance, the words “cause” and “source” may seem synonymous or interchangeable, and in many cases, they are.  But when it comes to eliminating the presence of potential problems in a food processing environment, there are critical differences that can have profound consequences when not appropriately distinguished. More specifically, I am referencing these terms in the context of “root cause” or “root source” investigations. To make matters even more confusing, the word “root” can itself be synonymous with both source and cause. So … Let’s parse.

We will begin alphabetically, with “root cause,” which is generally defined as a “but for” event, occurrence, or circumstance that caused the given deviation. A Root-Cause Analysis (RCA) is typically required following any significant processing deviation. Some RCA approaches are geared more toward identifying true root causes, while others are limited to general problem-solving techniques, and yet others (the most ineffectual) are designed to provide post-hoc justification in support of whatever corrective actions were taken.

By way of example, consider a long-term, low-intensity outbreak caused by resident Listeria monocytogenes (LM) periodically entering the processing environment. In such a scenario, a root cause of the deviation would be the failure of interventions to eradicate LM from the processing environment. 

The term “root source” generally refers to the geographical origin or the vector from which the problem originates. In our LM example above, the root source could be any of several things, depending on the frame of reference. From the FDA or CDC standpoint, it could be the contaminated product itself. From the company’s standpoint, it could be the specific place where the LM hides and resides, or it could be the vector on which the LM made entry to the facility.   

All this is to say, if you find pathogens in the environment, it is critically important to conduct a “root source” analysis as part of the “root cause” analysis. Identifying the root source of any pathogens you find in your processing environment is a crucial means to prevent your processing environment from one day being identified as the root source of an outbreak.