The Future of Food Safety: Electronic Monitoring

By Satesh Bidaisee, Associate Professor of Public Health and Preventive Medicine, St. George's University
October 18, 2016

Woman chooses meat in the storeCould Amazon product reviews predict outbreaks of food poisoning?

Researchers at the University of Washington think so. They’ve developed a data mining algorithm that retroactively identifies contaminated food products based on negative reviews. The team hopes to refine the method to predict future food-safety lapses in real time. That would enable faster recalls and potentially save lives.[1]

This project is helping bring food safety into the digital era. And the effort is sorely needed. America’s food supply chain lacks transparency and efficiency. Modernizing this process would better protect the 48 million Americans who currently get foodborne illnesses each year.[2]

Food production includes numerous steps, from harvesting and processing to packaging and transport. Food travels between 1,500 and 2,500 miles, on average, before it gets to the dinner table.[3] Dozens of different businesses are involved in the process — and a misstep by any one of them could make food unsafe.

Consumers need to know where their food has traveled and who has handled it. That requires better tracking and labeling, so that ordinary people and health authorities alike can quickly identify contaminated food and pull it out of the supply chain.

Some companies are already making their food more traceable. Chicken of the Sea, the tuna producer, recently launched an interactive digital tracking site that enables customers to see the source, processing location, and fishing method on any can of tuna purchased.[4] That added transparency promotes sustainable harvesting, but it also gives consumers unprecedented power to check if their food could have been exposed to a contaminated source.

If more food producers adopt such track and trace technology — the same technology that online shoppers use to track a package — they could immediately locate the source of any problems. Chipotle, which recently introduced such a system, learned that lesson the hard way. [5] In the aftermath of the chain’s 2015 E. coli outbreaks, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was unable to trace the origin of the outbreak because the company lacked a digital food tracking system.[6]

Consumers need greater transparency about their food supply chain. Digital tracking systems can provide it.

[1] http://www.foodsafetynews.com/2016/09/project-explores-whether-data-mining-can-help-predict-food-recalls/#.V9Ln7vkrKUl

[2] http://www.cdc.gov/foodborneburden/2011-foodborne-estimates.html

[3] http://www.worldwatch.org/globetrotting-food-will-travel-farther-ever-thanksgiving

[4] http://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20160912006379/en/Chicken-Sea%C2%AE-Launches-Seafood-Digital-Traceability-Initiative

[5] http://www.usatoday.com/story/money/2016/09/21/chipotle-cooks-up-food-safety-program-move-win-back-customers/90773604/

[6] http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/02/business/cdc-unable-to-trace-cause-of-outbreaks-at-chipotle.html?_r=1

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